Dementia Risk Study Finds 11 Key Factors Behind Condition
Scientists worldwide have been researching methods that could determine whether someone will be at risk of dementia in the future. Now, a team of investigators based in the United Kingdom (UK) have created a risk assessment score that can predict whether a person will develop the progressive brain disorder in the next 14 years.
It’s predicted that by 2050, an estimated 153 million people worldwide will be living with dementia—a degenerative cognitive condition that causes loss of memory, language, problem-solving, and other thinking abilities that can disrupt daily life activities.
According to experts, this will pose a serious danger to the health and social care systems of the future. But targeting significant risk factors now that lead to dementia might avoid around 40 percent of those potential cases, the UK researchers pointed out.
To that end, scientists from Oxford University and other institutions examined medical records of people ages 50 to 73 who were participants in two large, long-term studies: The UK Biobank study, which involved 220,762 people with an average age of 60, and the Whitehall II study involved 2,934 participants, with the average age of 57.
The UK Biobank study participants were examined to develop the new risk assessment score. Information from participants in the Whitehall II study group helped to validate the new risk assessment score.
The research team then generated a list of 28 known factors associated with a heightened or reduced risk of developing dementia. From there, they identified the following 11 factors that strongly predict dementia risk:
- • Age (typically 65 years and old)
- • Education
- • A history of diabetes
- • A history of depression
- • A history of stroke
- • Parental history of dementia
- • Levels of deprivation
- • High blood pressure
- • High cholesterol
- • Living alone
- • Being male
The researchers used these 11 risk factors to develop the UK Biobank Dementia Risk Score (UKBDRS) tool. The investigators examined these 11 factors alongside whether or not participants carried the APOE gene, which is a known risk factor for dementia. The APOE gene’s carriage was known for 157,090 participants in the UK Biobank study and 2,315 in the Whitehall II study. It was added to the risk score and called UKBDRS-APOE.
Within 14 years, 3,813 participants (nearly 2 percent) in the UK Biobank developed dementia, while 93 participants (just over 3 percent) developed dementia in the Whitehall II group.
The predictive values of UKBDRS—with and without APOE— were compared to that of age alone and three other widely used risk scores.
Researchers found that UKBDRS-APOE produced the highest predictive score, closely followed by the UKBDRS, age alone, and the three other widely used risk scores.
Based on the findings, Dr. Raihaan Patel, the study’s lead author and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Oxford, said the UKBDRS could be used as an initial screening tool for dementia to put people in “risk groups.” And, people who are identified as high-risk can be sent for further testing, such as cognitive assessments, brain scans, and blood tests.
The findings were published in the open-access journal BMJ Mental Health.
Signs of Dementia and Diagnosing Dementia
Older adults may begin to wonder if they are developing dementia when they forget what day it is—but remember it later—or misplace things from time to time–but can later find them—or miss a monthly payment but later remember to make the payment.
Health experts say that forgetfulness is a normal part of aging. However, the time to become concerned about dementia is when memory loss begins to disrupt daily living activities, such as when seniors frequently misplace things and cannot find them, can no longer take care of their monthly expenses, and get lost in familiar places. In other words, the signs and symptoms of dementia become more apparent over time.
One of the most obvious signs is a change in mood and behavior, which can happen even before memory problems occur. Besides memory loss, other notable signs and symptoms of dementia include:
- • Getting lost when walking or driving
- • Difficulties solving problems or making decisions
- • Difficulty speaking
- • Having difficulty handling money
- • Losing track of time
- • Forgetting things or recent events
- • Losing or misplacing things
- • Getting confused, even in familiar places
- • Repeating questions
Although an older adult may have one or more of these symptoms, it’s up to medical professionals to actually render a dementia diagnosis. The first step seniors can take is to visit their primary care provider, who can conduct tests to determine dementia. Before making a dementia diagnosis, however, primary care providers might refer their patients to neurologists—doctors who specialize in brain and nervous system disorders—neuropsychologists, and geriatricians.
Ways to Protect Against Dementia
While age and the APOE gene are both known risk factors for dementia, health conditions such as diabetes, depression, and high blood pressure also play a key role, according to Sana Suri, the study’s co-lead author and an associate professor at the University of Oxford. “For example, the estimated risk for a person with all of these will be approximately three times higher than that of a person of the same age who doesn’t have any,” Suri said in a press release.
Given that there is no cure for dementia, managing chronic health conditions and making lifestyle changes are important in reducing the negative impacts on a person’s well-being and quality of life.
According to the World Health Organization, studies have found that people can reduce their risk of cognitive decline and dementia by making lifestyle changes such as:
- • Staying physically active
- • Not smoking
- • Avoiding harmful use of alcohol
- • Managing your weight
- • Eating a healthy diet
- • Maintaining healthy blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
- • Writing down everyday tasks and appointments to help you remember important things
- • Getting regular check-ups with your doctor
- • Taking part in activities and social interactions that stimulate the brain and maintain daily function
- • Trying new ways to keep your mind active
- • Spending time with friends and family and engaging in community life
While the Oxford research team envisions doctors using the UKBDRS as a screening tool, Suri says it’s important to remember that the” risk score only tells us about our chances of developing dementia; it doesn’t represent a definitive outcome.”
“The importance of each risk factor varies, and given that some of the factors included in the score can be modified or treated, there are things we can all do to help reduce our risk of dementia,” Suri said.