Despite common misconceptions, dementia is not a specific disease, but rather, a group of symptoms associated with a severe decline in cognitive and memory skills. Symptoms arise when damage to the brain cells begin to interfere with the brain cells’ ability to communicate with each other, a phenomenon that makes it nearly impossible for a person to think, feel, and behave in a normal fashion.
For a long time, researchers and healthcare providers believed that the greatest risk factor for dementia was genetics, which could not be changed. However, a recent study conducted by David Llewellyn, Ph.D., and Elżbieta Kuźma, Ph.D., from the University of Exeter Medical School in the United Kingdom, suggest that maybe dementia is not a given after all, even if a person does have a strong genetic predisposition for it.
Study Strives To Determine if Healthy Lifestyle Choices Can Reduce Risk of Dementia
Previous research shows that a person’s risk for dementia is drastically affected by genetics. For instance, if an individual gets just one copy of the E4 variation of the gene that instructs the protein that transports lipids, his or her risk for dementia increases by three times. If a person inherits two copies, that risk increases by 15 times. This finding could be reason for doom and gloom, but Bentham Science wants you to know, there is good news.
A mounting body of evidence suggests that those who lead a healthy lifestyle — healthy meaning they do not smoke, consume excessive amounts of alcohol, exercise regularly, and eat a healthy diet — have a lower risk for developing the brain disease than those who lead moderately healthy to poor lifestyles. To see if this is truly the case, Kuźma, Llewellyn, and colleagues set out to examine 196,383 individuals over the age of 60. Participants did not have dementia at the outset of the study, which began in 2006 and ended in 2017.
Researchers began the study by identifying all of the confirmed genetic risk factors for dementia and calculating risk according to how strongly each correlated with Alzheimer’s. They then assessed each participant’s genetic risk factors and assigned each individual to one of five groups: Those with a low predisposition for the disease were placed in the first group; those with an intermediate disposition joined groups two to four; and those with a high predisposition went into group five.
Researchers then assessed each participant’s lifestyle and, again, divvied them up into one of three groups: favorable, intermediary, and unfavorable. Scientists gave weight to factors such as exercise, smoking status, alcohol intake, and diet.
Findings Suggest Dementia Is Not Inevitable
Bentham Science publishers understand that research findings are not always cause for celebration, but these findings may be. At the end of the study, approximately 1,700 individuals had developed dementia. Based on which individuals developed the disease, the researchers were able to conclude that lifestyle choices definitely play a role in overall dementia risk, with those who lead favorable lifestyles demonstrating lower risk irrespective of the genetic risk category they were in.
More to the point, of the individuals in the high genomic risk group who lead favorable lifestyles, only 1.3% developed dementia, compared with just 1.78% of those in the same group who lead unfavorable lifestyles. What these findings mean for research and at-risk individuals is that, with lifestyle changes of the positive variety, they can reduce their risk for dementia by .65%. Though this doesn’t seem like a great risk deduction, it translates to one less incident of dementia per 121 high-genetic-risk individuals per 10 years.
In addition to encouraging people to alter their lifestyles for the better, these findings are uplifting in that they undermine the doom-and-gloom view of dementia. Dementia is not, as many believed for so long, inevitable. Rather, one can reduce his or her risk simply by making healthier lifestyle choices.