An investigation into the genetic risk of suffering from dementia and the influence of lifestyle habits published in May and carried out by researchers from the health centers of the University of Mississippi and the University of Texas reveals something that neurologists already suspected: However high a person’s risk of Alzheimer’s may be if he improves his lifestyle, he can significantly reduce it.
These good habits are usually recommended, above all, by cardiologists, but it is becoming more and more evident that they also serve to prevent other problems; in this case, referring to brain health. ‘Life’s Simple Seven’ consists of eating healthy, not being overweight, not smoking, being physically active, controlling cholesterol and blood pressure, and lowering blood sugar.
Both universities, together with John Hopkins, the University of Minnesota, and the University of North Carolina, have followed more than 11,000 people for almost 3 decades (from 1987 to 2019), when the participants were between 45 and 65 years, as explained by Adrienne Tin, a professor at the University of Mississippi and main researcher of the study. The neurologists consulted highlight the size of the sample analyzed and the follow-up period, but they agree that the conclusions of the study “confirm what common sense dictates: that if one leads a healthy lifestyle, even having a risk of suffering a disease like Alzheimer’s, that risk decreases”, as summarized by the spokesman for the Spanish Society of Neurology, Guillermo García Ribas.
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These researchers emphasize that no matter how high a person’s risk of Alzheimer’s may be if he improves his lifestyle, he can significantly reduce it. The specialist in movement disorders and neurodegenerative diseases of the neurology service at Hospital Puerta de Hierro, Pilar Sánchez Alonso, explains: “Curiously, we have fewer Alzheimer’s patients than could be expected 30 years ago, and that without having any treatment. Reducing the vascular load –which is the only thing that has changed in this time– has caused the projections of what was expected to have dropped by about 20%. This study does something very specific, which is to relate the risk of suffering from dementia with these 7 factors”.
Yes, indeed; these habits should be taken in the middle ages of life: “It is not worth that you start doing them at 70 years old, you have to do it around 40 or 50, which is when brain damage begins to accumulate”, warns Sánchez Alonso, who adds: “The most important thing you can do is play sports, not be sedentary, not smoke, not be overweight and, if you have high cholesterol, take the necessary measures. All of this we usually hear is important for the heart, it is also important for neurological diseases and dementia in particular and, please, lead an intellectually active life”.
The results of the study can be encouraging for those who are worried about having a history of some type of dementia, as explained by the neurologist García Ribas: “Many relatives, children of people with this disease, often ask if something can be done. What this study tells us is that by leading a life with a more adequate diet and avoiding vascular risk factors and tobacco, these people reduce the probability of having Alzheimer’s, even though they have a family risk. By modifying your lifestyle, you are taking care of your brain for when you reach the age where it is due”, adds the neurologist at Puerta de Hierro Hospital.
Although these recommendations may be useful for all people, since the study refers to those who have a high genetic risk, it must be clarified what exactly this danger consists of. According to Sánchez Alonso, “only 5% of Alzheimer’s diseases (the most common of dementia, which can represent between 60% and 70% of cases) are hereditary, with a mutation that is passed from parents to children. When a parent was diagnosed at the age of 52, this may be an Alzheimer’s disease that the child inherits. The other 95% of cases are due to multiple genetic factors added together that pose a risk. That is to say, in this great majority of cases “the sum of many things occurs”, he underlines.
This means that, if a father has Alzheimer’s at age 85, the son will have a greater chance of developing the disease when he is older than someone without a history, but the risk will be higher “if, in addition, he smokes, does not play sports, has tension high… And that can be modified. That is the important thing about the study, which says that, even if you have genetic things that are risk factors, you can remove all the other risks and thus reduce them. With the same genetic risk factors, if you change everything else, you have less disease”, explains the neurologist. The American researcher also agrees: “Genetics alone does not determine that a person will develop dementia at some point”.
García Ribas clarifies that “the peak incidence of this disease is around 75 or 80 years old, but not all people who reach that age will have cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s”. According to the Spanish Society of Neurology, each year some 40,000 new cases of Alzheimer’s are diagnosed in that country. Between 3% and 4% of the population between 75 and 79 years old is diagnosed. In those over 85 years old, the figure reaches 34% and almost 40 in those over 90 years old. According to a report from the Spanish Ministry of Health, the number of people affected by Alzheimer’s in Spain exceeds 700,000 people over 40 years old.
The next step for researchers who have reached these conclusions is to look at the social aspect of dementia. As Tin explains, “social factors can help people improve their 7 habits, such as access to the health system and good nutrition in their neighborhood.” The neurologist Sánchez Alonso agrees that, in addition to that, access to education can influence individuals to acquire better life habits: “We have gone from populations that had few studies to populations that are educated, and that is a factor that we could call it protective against disease. It is difficult to measure and show it in a study, but, given the same burden of disease in the brain, populations with less level of education have symptoms much earlier”.