One-Third of Dementia Cases Could Be Preventable


Elderly woman at a card game.

November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that five million people in America today are living with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia. Many experts now believe that the percentage of people who will develop dementia is actually dipping slightly. However, because the population is aging, there will still be a steep rise in the number of cases, up to 14 million by the year 2050. This means many more millions of family members will be affected as they provide care for these loved ones—a challenging task, as many readers of the Hand in Hand e-newsletter can attest.

At present, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, and drug treatments have been largely ineffective. So prevention remains the main focus today. Can we lower our risk of developing dementia? Experts say yes. While some people are at higher risk due to genetic factors, there are many factors we can control.

A study published in July 20, 2017 issue of The Lancet, a highly regarded peer-reviewed medical journal, demonstrated that 35 percent of dementia cases could be prevented if people followed certain lifestyle practices throughout their lives. Said study co-author Dr. Lon Schneider of the Keck School of Medicine at University of Southern California, “There’s been a great deal of focus on developing medicines to prevent dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. But we can’t lose sight of the real major advances we’ve already made in treating dementia, including preventive approaches.”

The research, which was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2017 International Conference, named nine specific controllable risk factors:

Happy grey haired senior man with friendly female doctor in the park

Education and mental stimulation—The authors say that the longer a young person stays in school, the greater their cognitive reserve, which they define as “a resilience to cognitive decline caused by the brain strengthening its networks and therefore continuing functioning in later life despite damage.” Mentally stimulating activities are recommended throughout life.

Social connections—Social isolation has been found to be very stressful and damaging to brain health. Relationships are important at every age, perhaps more so the older we get.

Depression—The relationship between dementia and depression is a complicated one. Depression is a common symptom of dementia, but depression also increases the risk, because it is toxic to the brain.

Hearing loss—Hearing loss is linked with both depression and social isolation. The authors also noted, “Preserving hearing in mid-life may help people to experience a cognitively rich environment and build cognitive reserve.”

Smoking—Smoking exposes the brain to neurotoxins and reduces cardiovascular health, which is, in turn, damaging to the brain

Hypertension—Uncontrolled high blood pressure can damage the blood vessels in the brain, and also affects cardiovascular wellness.

Obesity—The researchers found that being overweight in earlier life may raise the risk of dementia in later life. Maintaining a healthy weight at any age protects the brain by protecting cardiovascular wellness.

Diabetes—Properly managing blood sugar helps patients avoid certain changes in the brain that affect memory and thinking.

Exercise—Physical activity promotes all-around health in people of every age, helping to prevent conditions that damage the brain. Indeed, physical activity can have a positive effect on each of the other factors in this list!

The authors emphasized that brain health is a lifelong process. Said lead author Prof. Gill Livingston of University College London in the UK, “Although dementia is diagnosed in later life, the brain changes usually begin to develop years before, with risk factors for developing the disease occurring throughout life, not just in old age. We believe that a broader approach to prevention of dementia which reflects these risk factors will benefit our aging societies and help to prevent the rising number of dementia cases globally.”

And although brain health begins in childhood, it’s never too late to make brain-healthy choices. The study authors noted that even seniors who are already living with cognitive impairment can benefit from positive lifestyle interventions, such as improved social contact, exercise and appropriate activities. Dr. Schneider reported that these interventions can replace the use of antipsychotic drugs, which have harmful side effects.

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge, reporting on study from The Lancet and Keck Medicine of USC. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2017.
Providing appropriate activities and care for loved ones who are living with memory loss is so important. Home care can help. To learn more, read “Is My Loved One with Alzheimer’s Safe at Home?” in the June/July 2017 issue of the Hand in Hand eNewsletter.

Also in this issue…

Give your brain a workout with the “Lowering the Risk of Dementia” puzzle, all about lifestyle choices that protect the brain.