As a geriatric care manager, I am always alert to changes in people’s eating habits and proper diet. As people age they naturally experience a decline in their appetite in part because their taste buds are not as responsive as they were when they were younger. Loss of appetite is also a potential sign of depression, and depression is one of the most common conditions older adults experience owing to the losses associated with their stage in life and aging. But if the diminished appetite leads to anemia owing to low iron intake, then there may also be a risk for dementia according to scientists.
These scientists started with a group of over 2,500 mentally healthy women and men whose average age was 76. They then followed these people for 11 years testing them regularly for their blood counts and other mental function tests. At the outset of this study 392 people were clinically testing as anemic. By the eleventh year of this study 455 people had developed clinical dementia.
These researchers also measured all study participants’ age, gender, education, blood sugar levels (and diabetes diagnoses) and more than a dozen other biologic metrics. In statistical analysis they controlled for all these other variables and found that anemia still was a strong predictor of dementia beyond these other possible causes. In fact, of the people who started the study with anemia, they had a 49 percent greater risk of developing dementia during the 11 years of the study.
What makes this study very compelling is that it is a prospective design. It is not one of the many studies we often see where scientists can ask questions about a person’s background in an effort to explain a current condition. It also is a large panel of people for a study, so the chances a statistical error are reduced. What the study cannot tell us is what kind of treatment for anemia could “prevent” dementia.
If you are a caregiver to an older loved one, what is the lesson to be learned from this research. At the very least it seems that caregivers should be watchful of their older loved ones’ diet as a relatively easy way to rule out at least one potential cause of dementia. I have written about other steps that can be taken in other postings. Exercise and keeping mentally active are among those other steps that people of all ages can engage in to stave off mental deficits like dementia.
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.