However, a perspective piece I recently co-authored for the New England Journal of Medicine highlights at least five recent studies suggesting that the risk of any individual getting dementia or Alzheimer’s disease today is lower than it was about 20 years ago. This is good news because it means the average 75-year-old today may be less likely than a 75-year-old in 1993 to suffer from this devastating condition.
We concluded that this decreased risk is likely due to a number of changes over the last few decades: People are completing more years of school, which helps the brain fight off dementia; and there’s more awareness and better control of the risk factors that cause heart disease, which are also risk factors for Alzheimer’s.
The consistency of the findings in the various studies from different countries around the world is encouraging because it suggests that, even if we don’t find a medication to “cure” Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, there are social and lifestyle factors that we can address that may decrease our risk.
Research suggests there are some key factors that may delay or prevent Alzheimer’s:
• Cardiovascular risk: Controlling risk factors that contribute to heart disease, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, smoking and obesity may also help prevent dementia.
• Education: Early-life education seems important in decreasing risk, as does keeping your mind active and learning new things throughout adulthood, and even in older age. It was once thought that the brain couldn’t be changed later in life, but newer research suggests that the brain remains “plastic” and exercising your brain can lead to healthier brain cells and more connections between those cells.
• Physical activity: One more reason to make exercise a priority. Moving and maintaining a healthy weight seem to influence your brain’s health too.
• Keeping your day job: Retiring from your job later in life may also keep your brain active and healthy longer.
• Educated parents: You can’t choose your parents, but if you’re born to an educated couple, you may have more luck in fighting off dementia. Previous research that we’ve done showed that particularly children with a more educated mother had a lower risk of Alzheimer’s. One possible explanation for this is that more-educated moms interact with and talk to their young children differently than less-educated moms.
• Social Life: Playing cards, talking with friends, joining a book club, and going to religious services may keep your brain healthy by increasing social interactions and “exercising” your brain more than you would have by being alone.
• Depression: A depressed mood may increase one’s risk of having thinking problems and cognitive decline, so seeking help for depression may be important, both for addressing the depressed mood itself and possibly for reducing the future risk of dementia.
Take the next step:
• Read more about Dr. Langa’s research related to dementia and Alzheimer’s: http://sitemaker.umich.edu/klanga/home
• To learn about other research studies, clinical trials and patient services, visit the Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center
• Read other news on the UMHS memory health blog.
Kenneth Langa, M.D., Ph.D. is a professor of internal medicine at U-M Medical School, research investigator at the Center for Clinical Management Research (CCMR), VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System; and member of the U-M Institute for Social Research, Institute of Gerontology and Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.
The University of Michigan Geriatrics Center and Institute of Gerontology is a premier, national resource dedicated to advancing research on aging and geriatrics health care issues; to providing outstanding educational opportunities in geriatrics for health professions trainees and to delivering exemplary, interdisciplinary health care and services for the older population.