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What You Can and Cannot Change About Dementia

Let me start with the short answer to a question we raised in the email announcement of today’s post.  ADRD is a term in common medical use that captures a number of conditions whose hallmark is cognitive decline: Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias.  The rest of the story, however, is about what we can and what we cannot control about whether we actually develop one of the ADRDs.

The good news is that nearly 40% of cases of ADRD owe to lifestyle choices that we can – well – “unchoose.”  If you were told that some basic lifestyle choices that we all make could actually reduce our chances of developing one of the dementias by nearly 40 percent, would you take steps to change your personal habits?  Researchers analyzed the histories of nearly 400,000 people in the U.S. who were 65 years old and older to see what made the difference between those who received the diagnosis and those who didn’t.

Let’s say that you agree to make some changes, what are the modifiable risk factors that these scientists found:

  • Midlife obesity is number one with a risk factor of 17.7%…translated that means obesity in one’s middle years increases the odds of developing one of these dementias by that percentage;
  • Physical inactivity is number two with an increased risk of dementia of 11.8%;
  • Low education is generally used to identify high school or less and is associated with an 11.7% greater risk of dementia;
  • Midlife hypertension (high blood pressure) adds 8.8% to a person’s risk of developing dementia in later years;
  • Depression boosts the odds of dementia by 8.8%;
  • Diabetes contributes another 7.3% to the dementia risk;
  • Smoking contributes another 6.0% to a person’s risk; and
  • Hearing loss adds 2.3% to a person’s risk of developing dementia later in life.

Process these a bit and you’ll probably notice that a number of them are really connected to others.  Obesity, for instance, can be associated with lack of physical activity and also can lead to either diabetes or high blood pressure.  If a person begins to work on the list, the risk improvement can be quite impressive on improving one’s standing on one leads to benefit on other measures.

The researchers also reported that three risk factors that we cannot control also impact our likelihood of developing dementia: gender, race and ethnicity.  The earlier we start on the factors over which we do have some control, the better.  Make a list and start…maybe yesterday?

Charlotte Bishop is a Caregiver Coach, an Aging Life Care Advisor, 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.  She also is the co-author of How Do I Know You? A Caregiver’s Lifesaver for Dealing with Dementia. 


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