Living a healthy lifestyle could help you reduce your risk of dementia, even if you have a genetic risk of the disease, a new study published in the peer-reviewed health journal JAMA found. The study analyzed data from 196,383 adults of European ancestry aged 60 and older. Of that sample, the researchers identified 1,769 cases of dementia over a follow-up period of eight years.
The risk of dementia was 32% lower in people with a high genetic risk if they had followed a healthy lifestyle, compared to those with an unhealthy lifestyle.
Here’s what they found: Participants with high genetic risk and an unfavorable lifestyle were almost three times more likely to develop dementia versus those with a low genetic risk and favorable lifestyle. However, the risk of dementia was 32% lower in people with a high genetic risk if they had followed a healthy lifestyle, compared to those with an unhealthy lifestyle.
“This research delivers a really important message that undermines a fatalistic view of dementia,” said co-lead author David Llewellyn, an associate professor at the University of Exeter Medical School and fellow at the Alan Turing Institute. “Some people believe it’s inevitable they’ll develop dementia because of their genetics.” This research, however, says that may not be the case.
Here’s what to avoid: The study, published Monday by scientists at the University of Exeter and presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles, looked at four main signs of a healthy versus unhealthy lifestyle. Those who were more likely to develop dementia reported eating an unhealthier diet higher in sugar and salt, did not engage in regular physical activity and smoked cigarettes. (The researchers considered “moderate alcohol consumption,” as well as regular exercise, no smoking and a healthy diet, as part of a healthy lifestyle.)
Drinking at least one artificially sweetened beverage daily was associated with almost three times the risk of developing stroke or dementia.
A 2017 study found a fifth item worth avoiding: Artificial sweeteners. “Drinking at least one artificially sweetened beverage daily was associated with almost three times the risk of developing stroke or dementia compared to those who drank artificially sweetened beverages less than once a week,” according to the study, published in the American Heart Association journal “Stroke.”
Beware of the medicine cabinet: Researchers also found a statistically significant association between dementia and exposure to anticholinergic drugs, especially antidepressants, anti-psychotic drugs, anti-Parkinson drugs, anti-epilepsy drugs and bladder antimuscarinics, which are used to treat urinary incontinence, according to another study in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Separate research published last month analyzed data from 284,343 patients in England aged 55 and up. They found “nearly a 50% increased odds of dementia” linked with exposure to more than 1,095 daily doses of anticholinergics over 10 years, “equivalent to three years’ daily use of a single strong anticholinergic medication at the minimum effective dose recommended for older people.”
“We found greater increases in risk associated with people diagnosed with dementia before the age of 80, which indicates that anticholinergic drugs should be prescribed with caution in middle-aged and older people,” the researchers wrote. Anticholinergic drugs block a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine in the nervous system.
One 2013 New England Journal of Medicine study found that the yearly dementia-attributable societal cost per person in 2010 was $41,689 to $56,290, depending on the calculation. Costs included nursing home care, out-of-pocket spending, home care and Medicare. A separate invited commentary also published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine praised the rigor of the new findings, but cautioned that more evidence was needed.
(Meera Jagannathan contributed to this story.)