Lifestyle, not aging, may best determine dementia risk, study says

A new study suggests that lifestyle factors may be more important than age in determining dementia risk. Photo by pasja1000/Pixabay

July 13 (UPI) — Offering a spark of encouragement to healthy baby boomers, a study released Wednesday suggests lifestyle factors may be more important than age in determining dementia risk.

Researchers in Canada found that people with no dementia risk factors, such as smoking, diabetes or hearing loss, have similar brain health as individuals 10 to 20 years younger.

“This is great news, since there’s a lot you can do to modify these factors, such as managing diabetes, addressing hearing loss, and getting the support you need to quit smoking,” said Annalise LaPlume, a postdoctoral fellow at Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care’s Rotman Research Institute and the study’s lead author.

Baycrest offers care to the elderly in Toronto, and also anchors a research network affiliated with the University of Toronto. In addition to Rotman, its network includes the scientific headquarters of the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging, which is Canada’s largest national dementia research initiative.

The new study also found that a single dementia risk factor could reduce a person’s cognition by the equivalent of up to three years of aging.

The research was published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Diagnosis, Assessment, and Disease Monitoring, a journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

The investigators described their study as among the first to look at lifestyle risk factors for dementia across the entire lifespan.

It included data from 22,117 people aged 18 to 89, who completed the Cogniciti Brain Health Assessment developed by Baycrest. The online test takes about 20 minutes to complete and consists of a background questionnaire and four cognitive tasks, researchers said in a news release.

They analyzed participants’ performance on memory and attention tests, and how this was impacted by eight modifiable risk factors for dementia: low education (less than a high school diploma), hearing loss, traumatic brain injury, alcohol or substance abuse, hypertension, smoking (currently or in the past four years), diabetes and depression.

The scientists found that having three risk factors, for example, could decrease cognitive performance by as much as nine years of aging. And the effects of the risk factors increased with age, as did the number of risk factors that people had.

Older adults, ages 66-89, had more risk factors than middle-aged (ages 45-65) and younger adults (ages 18-44), the research paper noted.

Most young and middle-aged adults had no risk factors (58% and 46%, respectively), whereas most older adults had one risk factor.

This is actionable information, the researchers said.

“Start addressing any risk factors you have now, whether you’re 18 or 90, and you’ll support your brain health to help yourself age fearlessly,” LaPlume said.