Can a Healthy Lifestyle Reduce Your Dementia Risk Despite Genetics?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Having a family history of Alzheimer’s disease can make any mental lapses a cause for worry.

But does this mean you’re guaranteed to eventually develop the disease?

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New findings presented at the annual Alzheimer’s Association International Conference this weekend indicate that simple lifestyle changes can significantly reduce that risk.

“We looked at a combination of lifestyle factors that have been previously associated with dementia risk,” she added. “We included no current smoking, regular physical activity, moderate alcohol consumption, and healthy diet as healthy behaviors in our healthy lifestyle score and categorized it as favorable, intermediate, and unfavorable. We found that favorable lifestyle reduced the risk of dementia by 32 percent in those with high genetic risk compared to unfavorable lifestyle.”

Jason Krellman, PhD, ABPP-CN, board certified in clinical neuropsychology at Columbia University in New York, agreed that lifestyle is a major factor.

“Previous research already shows that smoking increases Alzheimer’s disease risk,” he told ishonest. “The likely reasons for this are oxidative stress or cerebrovascular disease caused by smoking increasing susceptibility to the development of Alzheimer’s pathology in the brain.”

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“While moderate alcohol intake may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease,” he added, “higher amounts can have the reverse effect, increasing inflammation that ultimately damages heart and brain tissue, making the brain more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s and other disease processes.”

Lifestyle strongly influences risk

Researchers analyzed data from the UK Biobank of 196,383 adults of European ancestry who were aged 60 and older.

They identified 1,769 cases of dementia over an eight-year follow-up period.

The participants were grouped by whether they had a high, intermediate, or low genetic risk for developing dementia.

What genetic markers indicate

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According to the National Institute on Aging, there is a strong genetic component to Alzheimer’s disease.

“We’ve identified genetic mutations that carry a very strong risk for the uncommon early-onset form of Alzheimer’s disease, which starts to show symptoms as early as the third decade of life but accounts for less than 10 percent of all [Alzheimer’s] cases,” Krellman said.

The gene found to be the strongest predictor of Alzheimer’s risk is called ApoE, and there are three varieties:

  • ApoE2
  • ApoE3
  • ApoE4

We all carry two copies of this gene, but research shows that carrying the ApoE4 variety significantly increases Alzheimer’s risk. Having just one copy of ApoE4 can triple your risk.

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However, for late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, the most frequent type of dementia that can appear after age 65, there may be multiple genes, lifestyle factors, and even environmental factors that determine whether you’ll develop the disease.

Working your brain can reduce risk

In another study, researchers at Tianjin Medical University, China, examined whether a lifetime of mental and social activity was linked to both a reduced rate of memory loss and lower risk of developing dementia, despite age-related changes to the brain.

The degree of lifetime mental and social activity is called cognitive reserve.

The researchers found that, despite having degenerative brain disease or Alzheimer’s, there was reduced risk if a senior had high scores in lifespan cognitive reserve.

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The lifespan cognitive reserve score combined education, social activities in later life, size of social networks in later life, and mental activity in early- life, midlife, and late-life.

“Social engagement, cognitive stimulation in activities the person enjoys, maintaining a regular schedule of restful sleep, and reducing psychological stress have also been shown to decrease development and severity of [Alzheimer’s] as well as lead to a better overall quality of life,” said Krellman.

Healthy lifestyle trumps genetics

According to Krellman, the development and progression of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases are governed by many factors out of a person’s control, such as genetics.

However, he emphasized that “controlling those factors the person can modify, such as diet, activity level, and social engagement, might slow progression of symptoms in some people.”

“Cognitive stimulation in activities the person enjoys and maintaining a regular schedule of restful sleep might also be helpful,” he added. “None of these are ‘magic bullets’ guaranteed to slow disease progression but are very likely to increase quality of life and overall health, and this has obvious benefits even if the disease itself is not impacted.”

“We were very excited to see a consistent pattern in our analyses. Genetic risk and lifestyle factors were independently associated with risk of dementia, indicating that healthy lifestyle is associated with reduced dementia risk regardless of genetic risk,” Kuzma said. “So it’s not only about those with high genetic risk, but it does suggest that even though we can’t change our genes, we can change our lifestyle to try to reduce the risk of dementia.”

Read more on: dementia, diet, alcohol

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