A healthy lifestyle can prevent the onset of dementia regardless of genetic risk factors. This is according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
Researchers found that individuals aged 60 years and above who follow a healthy lifestyle have a lower risk of dementia than those who have an unhealthy lifestyle. Additionally, they found that genetic risk can be mitigated by healthy lifestyle choices.
The study was a collaboration between researchers from the University of Exeter in the U.K., the University of Michigan, the University of Oxford and the University of South Australia.
What is dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term used to refer to nervous system disorders that typically affect older individuals. These disorders are usually chronic or degenerative in nature. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 50 million people worldwide have dementia, and about 10 million new cases are reported each year.
Dementia is known to impair cognitive functions, such as memory, thinking, orientation, comprehension, calculation and language. It also impairs an individual’s ability to make sound judgments and negatively affects emotional response and social behavior. Interestingly, dementia does not affect consciousness at all. (Related: Five warning signs of dementia.)
On the other hand, dementia accelerates cognitive decline. Often, a person’s risk of dementia increases following a traumatic event or injury, especially if it affects blood circulation in the brain. A good example of such an event is stroke.
Here are the types of irreversible dementia that commonly afflict people:
- Alzheimer’s disease – The most common type of dementia, it is responsible for about 60-70 percent of dementia cases worldwide. Alzheimer’s disease is sometimes linked to mutations in certain genes. However, experts do not qualify it as a genetic disease.
- Vascular dementia – Vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia. It is caused by insufficient blood flow and oxygen supply to the brain.
- Lewy body dementia – Lewy body dementia is marked by the abnormal buildup of proteins in the brain. It is often linked to Parkinson’s disease due to the similarities in their symptoms, such as visual hallucinations, slow movement and tremors.
Lifestyle strongly influences the risk of dementia
Fortunately, the onset of dementia can be prevented. In their study, American and British researchers hypothesized that adherence to a healthy lifestyle can greatly reduce the risk of dementia.
To test this hypothesis, the researchers examined data drawn from the UK Biobank, a prospective cohort study that collected data from approximately 500,000 individuals in the U.K. from 2006 to 2010. The researchers restricted their analyses to data from individuals aged 60 years and above, who had no symptoms or diagnosis of dementia. The number of participants that fit the criteria amounted to 196,383.
To assess the participants’ lifestyles, the researchers used a touchscreen questionnaire that scored the participants based on the following dementia risk factors: smoking status, physical activity, diet and alcohol consumption.
Over a follow-up period of eight years, the researchers identified 1,769 cases of dementia. Surprisingly, they found that participants with unhealthy lifestyles, regardless of their genetic risk, had a higher likelihood of developing dementia than participants who followed healthier lifestyles.
This suggests that a person’s lifestyle choices can dictate his dementia risk, regardless of whether he is genetically predisposed to dementia or not. Having a healthy lifestyle can help prevent a person from developing dementia.
Dementia is the leading cause of disability and dependency among older individuals. Fortunately, the study proved that dementia is not inevitable. According to David Llewellyn, one of the authors of the study, their research “delivers a really important message that undermines a fatalistic view of dementia.”
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