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Dementia and Autoimmune Disease?

Autoimmune diseases have gotten a lot of press in the past decade or so, because scientists have developed biologic agents that have been able to slow or halt the progression of many of these diseases.  The list includes the usual suspects you have seen on television commercials like rheumatoid arthritis, plaque psoriasis or Crohn’s disease.  But the category also includes conditions like type 1 diabetes, lupus, multiple sclerosis and nearly twenty other medical conditions.

Well, these conditions may be poised to get some more attention.  Researchers in the United Kingdom have found a link between patients who early in their lives have been diagnosed with an autoimmune condition and those same patients later developing dementia.  This includes both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.  It all comes down to big numbers.   The researchers accumulated data on roughly 1.8 million patients who had been diagnosed and treated for autoimmune conditions between 1998 and 2012. They also had a control group of about 7 million patients – those who had not been diagnosed with an autoimmune condition.

Of the 25 autoimmune conditions, 18 of them proved to be statistical predictors of later development of dementia.  The disease with the most dementia diagnoses later was hypothyroidism.  Over all the autoimmune conditions, the risk of developing dementia later was about twenty  percent higher than for the control cohort.  That said, we are talking very small risks for either group.

Of the dementias, Alzheimer’s disease was a slightly lower risk outcome than vascular dementia.  The researchers speculate that as patients with a disease like RA likely will be taking NSAIDS like naproxen or ibuprofen which may also have a neuroprotective effect against Alzheimer’s disease.  Overall, the risk for developing any dementia was slightly higher for men over women, but there was substantial variability across specific autoimmune diseases.  The research seems in general to be encouraging further study of anti-inflammatory drugs as preventive care against dementia…perhaps to see if the same anti-inflammatory drugs that address autoimmune conditions can have an effect on neuroinflammation.  The Alzheimer’s Association is taking this seriously.  Last year they announced a $7million investment in clinical trials looking at drugs addressing brain inflammation.  The researchers suggest that the data are preliminary, but admit that the inflammatory route is worth more analysis.

Charlotte Bishop is a Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago.  Please email your questions to


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