Lifestyle Factors in Midlife Linked to Dementia Risk Later in Life

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Lifestyle Factors in Midlife Linked to Dementia Risk Later in Life

In middle-aged adults, a widely used assessment of lifestyle factors — developed to help predict a person’s cardiovascular disease risk — was found to predict the risk of developing dementia in older age, according to a new study published in the journal Neurology.

The American Heart Association’s “Life’s Simple 7” are guidelines covering seven areas of lifestyle factors known to affect a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease. These seven areas are managing blood pressure, controlling cholesterol, reducing blood sugar, getting active, eating better, losing weight, and stopping smoking. While the guidelines were designed to help people reduce their risk for cardiovascular disease, researchers have also looked at their impact on other areas of health — and have tried to figure out how much people’s lifestyle scores affect health outcomes relative to other factors, such as their genetic risk for cardiovascular disease. For example, in a study published in March 2022 in the journal Circulation, researchers compared how Life’s Simple 7 and participants’ genetic risk each contributed to whether they developed coronary artery disease (CAD) — and found that even in participants with the highest genetic risk for heart disease, those with an “ideal” lifestyle score lived an average of 20.2 more years without coronary artery disease than those with a poor lifestyle score.

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For the latest study, researchers looked instead at how Life’s Simple 7 affected the risk for developing dementia years down the road, in middle-aged adults with a range of genetic risk scores for dementia. A total of 11,561 participants — 8,823 European Americans and 2,738 African Americans — with an average age of 54 at the beginning of the study were followed from 1987-1989 until 2019 at the latest. The researchers then compared participants’ Life’s Simple 7 scores at the beginning of the study with their risk of developing dementia over a median follow-up period of 26.2 years.

Better lifestyle score linked to lower risk for dementia

During the follow-up period, 1,603 European American participants (18.2%) and 631 African American participants (23.0%) developed dementia. Not surprisingly, a higher genetic risk score for dementia was linked to a greater risk for developing dementia — with each increase in genetic risk score by a standard deviation (which measures how far a number is from the average within a set of data) linked to a 44% higher risk of developing dementia in European Americans, and a 26% higher risk in African Americans. But regardless of participants’ genetic risk for dementia — in every group of participants, when they were divided into five groups of equal size based on their genetic risk score — a better lifestyle score was linked to a lower risk for dementia.

Among European Americans in particular, even those with the highest genetic risk scores for dementia were less likely to develop dementia if they had a better lifestyle score, with each additional point in their lifestyle score (out of 14 — 0 to 2 points are possible in each of the seven categories) linked to a 9% lower risk for dementia. African Americans showed all the same trends as European Americans, but with less statistical certainty due in part to the smaller number of African American participants.

The researchers concluded that regardless of participants’ genetic risk for dementia, a better lifestyle score in midlife was linked to a lower risk for developing dementia as they got older. But, they wrote, “Larger sample sizes from diverse populations are needed to obtain more reliable estimates of the effects of modifiable health factors on dementia risk” within groups of participants with a similar genetic risk for dementia.

Want to learn more about maintaining cognitive health with diabetes? Read “Nine Tips to Keep Your Memory With Diabetes,” “Keeping Your Brain Strong With Diabetes” and “Memory Fitness: How to Get It, How to Keep It.”

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips on social media

A freelance health writer and editor based in Wisconsin, Phillips has a degree from Harvard University. He is a former Editorial Assistant for Diabetes Self-Management and has years of experience covering diabetes and related health conditions. Phillips writes on a variety of topics, but is especially interested in the intersection of health and public policy.

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