Why the Risk of Dementia May Be Declining

Exercise. Keep learning. Avoid obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Treat depression and cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol. Stay socially active. Retire later. Have an educated mother. That prescription may prevent or postpone dementia, according to an analysis, just published in the New England Journal of Medicine, of five studies from 2005 to 2013.

Dementia may be decliningExperts on aging have found that the risk of dementia for individuals seems to have gone down over the last 20 years, and that those who do develop it may have it later in life.  But that doesn’t mean there won’t continue to be many new cases of dementia. There have to be: People are living longer and our population is aging. Think 78 million baby boomers alone!

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“The fact that the overall risk for dementia is declining among older folks has huge implications for family caregivers,” says Kenneth Langa, M.D., a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School and coauthor of the New England Journal of Medicine article. He says that fewer people with dementia means less overall family caregiving and less of a burden to society. It also may affect the long-term care system, possibly creating less demand for nursing homes while having an economic impact on caregivers and employers. (People may take off less time from work, drop to part-time work or quit, be more productive, and have time to do other things.)

Langa and his colleagues from around the country say the decline-of-dementia trend is likely due to several factors. Among them are education and general health. Higher education levels have been shown in studies to help delay the onset or decrease the risk of dementia. An educated mother, in particular, may have an impact on her children’s risk of late-life dementia. Why? “Educated women may interact with their young children differently, introducing complex words and concepts. That early life interaction may have an influence on the brain and the risk one has for dementia 50 to 70 years later,” says Langa. Better control of cardiovascular factors including high cholesterol and high blood pressure – with more aggressive treatment than, say, 20 years ago – is also decreasing people’s dementia risk.

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The dark cloud looming is the prevalence and increase of obesity and diabetes, which may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. It’s yet another reason why lifestyle and health changes are so important.

Photo by wild pixel via istockphoto

Sally Abrahms specializes in aging and baby boomers, focusing on caregiving, housing and 50+ work. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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