”Dementia is not a condition that’s ever going to be such that a single drug can be considered a cure for the illness,” said Professor Lon Schneider, co-author of the Lancet Report presented at the 2017 Alzheimer’s Assoc. International Conference. Alzheimer’s is now thought to be a disease like Cancer or heart disease, which also can’t be prevented or cured by a single drug. Thus, over the past decade, scientists and doctors are increasingly studying and testing the results of how controllable lifestyle changes made early in life, before the onset of the disease, or even after a person diagnosed with Alzheimer’s could affect the severity and progression of any type of dementia.
The Lancet Report also boldly claimed that “up to one-third of the world’s dementia cases could be prevented by certain lifestyle changes.” The report has met with some opposition, but it surely can’t hurt to be aware of the findings and to try to attempt as many of the changes as we and/or our loved ones are able to make. Professor Schneider added: “The potential magnitude of the effect on dementia of reducing these risk factors is larger than we could ever imagine the effect that current, experimental medications could have. Mitigating risk factors provides us a powerful way to reduce the global burden of dementia.”
Nine Lifestyle Risk Factors
The report identifies nine lifestyle risk factors for Alzheimer’s over a person’s life span that can have an accumulating effect, including:
- Childhood before Age 15: years of education
- Middle Age: hypertension, hearing loss and obesity
- Late Life: a smoking, depression, physical inactivity, social isolation and diabetes
The Lancet team considered each factor separately and also looked at how they related to one another to calculate how much modification of each could potentially affect a person’s dementia risk. Only by modifying all nine factors could the risk be reduced by 35 percent.
Dr. Doug Brown, director of research at the charity Alzheimer’s Society, said: “The revelation that over a third of dementia cases worldwide are, in theory, entirely preventable is cause for celebration. But to achieve even close to this kind of reduction in cases we need to consider two important challenges – firstly how risk factors like education, obesity and depression apply not just at a population level, but to individual people who all have their own unique genetic risk profiles, and secondly how we can motivate people in mid to late life to change their behavior and adopt healthier lifestyle choices.”
Dr. Brown points out not all of the nine risk factors identified are easily modifiable:
- Difficult to change: poor education and social isolation
- Easier to improve: cardiovascular factors like lowering blood pressure and not smoking
- Need for further study: links between hearing loss and dementia not really known
- Healthy habits: difficult to motivate people to make healthier choices, like a better diet and more exercise, as measures they can take to reduce the risk of dementia
He added: “While this report rightly highlights measures we can take to reduce our risk of dementia, it also serves as a reminder that even if every risk factor identified here could be eliminated, we do not yet have a surefire way to prevent dementia. Alongside prevention research, we must continue to invest in research to find a life-changing treatment for people with this devastating condition.”
At the same conference, A report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine took a more cautious approach to the effects of lifestyle modification. Its testing methods found that just three types of intervention offered “encouraging but inconclusive” evidence:
- Cognitive training,
- Blood pressure management for hypertension
- Increased physical exercise.
2016 Alzheimer’s Conference
Lifestyle choices that were considered at the 2016 Alzheimer’s Conference included:
- Work that involves complex thinking
- Interaction with other people
Both seem to help protect against the onset of Alzheimer’s. One startling conclusion was that while a “Western” diet (red and processed meats, white bread, potatoes, pre-packaged foods and sweets) is associated with cognitive decline, people who ate such food could offset the negative effects and experienced less cognitive decline if they also had a mentally stimulating lifestyle.
Occupations that afforded the highest levels of protections included lawyer, teacher, social worker, engineer and doctor. The key seemed to be working primarily with other people, rather than with things or data. “You can never totally forget about the importance of a good diet, but in terms of your risk of dementia, you are better able to accommodate some of the brain damage that is associated with consuming this kind of (unhealthy) diet,” said Matthew Parrott, of the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, who presented the study.
Hope for the Future
There are large trials that are ongoing or forthcoming that could provide more evidence to support the effects of lifestyle intervention. We recommend that you check regularly for the latest news on www.alz.org. And start NOW to eliminate as many risk factors as you can from your lifestyle and to encourage those close to you to do the same.
- https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/healthier-living-could-reduce-worldwide-dementia-by-a-third-report July 2017 Alzheimer’s Conf.
- https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/complex-jobs-and-social-ties-appears-to-help-ward-off-alzheimers-new-research-shows/2016/07/22/5f227bc4-4fca-11e6-a7d8-13d06b37f256_story.html?utm_term=.baf12a7dc2ee 2016 Alzheimer’s Conf.