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November 28, 2019

Dementia Risk: Genetics and Lifestyle and How They Play a Role

Although dementia is not a natural part of aging, it’s true that the risk of developing dementia increases as you age.

You might wonder if there are genetic and lifestyle factors that can increase the risk for yourself or your loved ones, and if so, what lifestyle changes can you make to reduce the risk?

Researchers and clinicians are delving into those questions with one goal being to provide information that can help reduce the risk of developing dementia in the first place.

Because there are so few treatments right now for the various forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, it’s preventive measures that are currently in the spotlight.

Experts do believe that risk factors for dementia include genetics and lifestyle, with the latter including diet, physical activity, alcohol consumption and smoking. Specifically, a study published in JAMA in July 2019 provides the following conclusion: 2019 finds older adults with both an unfavorable lifestyle and high genetic risk were significantly associated with higher dementia risk.

It's important to note that this research does not prove that genetic and/or lifestyle factors cause dementia. Instead, it opens up more possibilities for research while also suggesting that living a healthy lifestyle is a good preventive strategy to help reduce the risk of developing dementia.

More About Family History

If a relative is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it’s natural to grieve for that person, as well as to wonder if this condition can run in families. Is there a higher risk for you to develop dementia? According to an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, family history can increase the risk, “but it’s not that much higher if you consider the absolute numbers.”

More specifically, if a close relative has developed Alzheimer’s disease, your risk increases by 30%. While that may sound high, here’s an example that can be reassuring. If you’re 65 years old, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s is 2% per year (98% chance of NOT developing it). If you have a family history and are 65, this means you now have a 2.6% chance of developing this form of dementia per year. So, although dementia can “run in families,” it’s important to consider the degree and not panic.

This expert does not recommend genetic testing if there are people with dementia in your family. Why? Because the testing can’t tell you if you’ll develop the disease — only your risk of having it happen.

More About Living a Healthy Lifestyle

A study led by the University of Exeter had its results published in JAMA in July 2019, with encouraging news. The risk of developing dementia was actually 32% lower in people with a genetically higher risk if they live a healthy lifestyle.

The study collected data from nearly 200,000 adults aged 60 and up with European ancestry. They grouped the participants into three groups: those with a genetically higher risk for dementia; with an intermediate risk; and with a low risk. They also grouped them into lifestyle categories — favorable, intermediate and unfavorable. Lifestyle-wise, people were grouped by self-reporting data about diet, physical activity, alcohol consumption and smoking, with people reporting moderate alcohol use fitting into the favorable category.

Through this process, the researchers determined that by living a healthy lifestyle, people can reduce the risk of developing dementia across all genetic categories. “This research delivers a really important message that undermines a fatalistic view of dementia. Some people believe it’s inevitable they’ll develop dementia because of their genetics. However, it appears that you may be able to substantially reduce your dementia risk by living a healthy lifestyle,” one study author said.

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