People say, “Life is what you make it,” and to a large extent, that’s true. Whether someone is given every opportunity or needs to bushwhack their way through a jungle of obstacles, many folks from all backgrounds and circumstances have either risen or fallen by their own efforts.
But few of us have ever thought we could change our genes. If one or both of our parents developed Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, it seemed like the odds were stacked against us genetically, meaning we had a higher than average risk of developing some type of cognitive impairment as well.
Biology Doesn’t Have to Be Destiny!
Now a pair of studies suggests that dementia is not inevitable, even with a genetic predisposition to the disorder.
A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reveals that whether or not someone develops dementia depends as much on how they choose to live as on their genetic profile.
Researchers tracked data from nearly 200,000 people who were at least 60 years of age for a range of risk factors that contribute to cancer, heart disease, depression, and dementia.
They also created a “lifestyle score” for study participants based on four primary factors:
- Cigarette smoking
- Alcohol consumption
While those with more genetic risk factors did have a higher likelihood of developing dementia than those with no such genetic predisposition, those with the highest risk were still just half as likely to develop dementia as people with the same risk who had unhealthy lifestyle habits.
“This research delivers a really important message that undermines a fatalistic view of dementia,” says David Llewellyn, associate professor at the University of Exeter Medical School and senior author of the study.
“Some people believe it’s inevitable they’ll develop dementia because of their genetics. The core message from these findings is that whatever their genetic risk, people may be able to benefit from a healthy lifestyle.
“It’s really reassuring in a way, since people say, ‘My parents had dementia so I probably inherited bad genes.’ We found it’s not all or nothing. The overall pattern of healthy behaviors and a healthy lifestyle can make a difference.”
Lifestyle Determines Dementia Risk
A longitudinal study conducted by Rush University Medical Center produced similar results. The study followed nearly 2500 people for almost a decade, tracking 5 lifestyle factors:
- Smoking status
- Alcohol consumption
- Physical activity
- Engagement in mentally stimulating activities, such as crossword puzzles or reading.
People who reported a healthier lifestyle, such as a low-fat diet, exercising for 30 minutes five times a week, not smoking, and drinking alcohol in moderation, were 60 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, regardless of their genetics, race or gender.
“We were expecting to find a protective effect of these factors on dementia risk. But we were surprised by the magnitude of the effect,” said Dr. Klodian Dhana, lead scientist on the Rush University study.
Never Too Late to Change
Given that all participants in both studies were 60+, and were able to lower their dementia risk by adopting healthier behaviors, the results suggest that it’s never too late to improve the odds, says Dr. John Haga, director of the division of behavioral and social research at the National Institute on Aging.
Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, who was not involved with either study, adds that the results “reinforce the notion that some of these lifestyle factors may actually affect the trajectory of cognitive aging and the development of dementia. We certainly accept that with heart disease. We need to adopt a similar mindset for cognitive aging.”
Other research corroborates the JAMA and Rush University findings, particularly regarding diet and weight.
New UK research found that maintaining body weight — avoiding weight gain or loss — could help prevent the onset of dementia. Led by the University of Wolverhampton, the research examined almost 40,000 participants and 4500 dementia cases worldwide.
Ruoling Chen, professor of Public Health and Medical Statistics at the university, said, “There is no evidence to support recommendation of increasing body weight in older age for the purpose of preventing increased risk of dementia. However, we should pay more attention to older adults who lose weight, probably due to chronic diseases, for developing dementia. Controlling body weight to be within normal range in older age may prevent dementia.”
Thicker Waist, Thinner Brain
Another just-published study from the University of Miami found that a bigger body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference in your sixties appears to correlate with thinning of the cerebral cortex, which could increase the risk of cognitive and memory issues later in life.
And a large-scale, decade-long Korean study of people age 60 to 79 also found weight gain or loss to be a significant risk factor for dementia.
All of these studies support what we stand for at The Kensington: an active, healthy retirement that keeps our residents engaged, physically and mentally, with nutritious meals and a life enrichment calendar designed to keep someone as busy as they choose to be.
Life at The Kensington Is Good for Mental Health
Located just steps from the beach, our elegant, well appointed senior living community makes aging in place a delight. From a menu of ever-changing classes that include brain fitness, art, dance, and chair yoga, to local outings and special events, our life enrichment activities will help keep your loved one’s mind sharp, preserve wellness, nurture the spirit and support the formation of new friendships.
To nourish the body as well as the spirit, our Director of Dining Services, Kieran Harrington, aims to make each meal an extraordinary experience that offers excellent cuisine, presentation, service, and atmosphere.
Mouth-watering menu selections feature grilled salmon, prime rib, fresh vegetables, and much more, always with the highest quality ingredients available. Of course, we accommodate special dietary needs and preferences. We also encourage families to dine with their loved ones often.
We look forward to welcoming you to the Kensington Redondo Beach soon, where keeping seniors both mentally and physically healthy is our goal. After all, that’s our pledge to you: to love and care for your family members as we do our own.