Living a healthy lifestyle could help counteract a genetic risk of developing dementia, new research indicates.
It’s the first study to look at the extent to which it might be possible to offset a genetic dementia risk through lifestyle factors including diet, physical activity, not smoking and moderate alcohol consumption.
The study, led by UK researchers with input from the University of South Australia, found the risk of dementia in people with a high genetic probability of developing it was 32 per cent lower in people who led a healthy lifestyle compared to those who didn’t.
Meanwhile, people with a high genetic risk who led unhealthy lifestyles were almost three times more likely to develop the disease.
“Among older adults without cognitive impairment or dementia, both an unfavorable lifestyle and high genetic risk were significantly associated with higher dementia risk,” it concluded.
“A favorable lifestyle was associated with a lower dementia risk among participants with high genetic risk.”
Countering ‘fatalistic’ view of dementia
UniSA’s Professor Elina Hypponen says the results are exciting because they show it’s possible to take a proactive approach to dementia. The study also suggests that much of dementia may actually be preventable.
“Our results clearly show that in the context of dementia risk, it is possible to notably reduce the inherited risk by our own actions,” she said.
The study analysed UK Biobank data from almost 200,000 people aged 60 and over. It found 1,769 cases of dementia over an eight year follow up period up to 2017, with researchers comparing genetic risk with self-reported lifestyle factors.
Dr David Llewellyn from the University of Exeter Medical School and the Alan Turing Institute said the results were important because they helped counter the “fatalistic” view that dementia is determined by genetics.
“Some people believe it’s inevitable they’ll develop dementia because of their genetics. However, it appears that you may be able to substantially reduce your dementia risk by living a healthy lifestyle,” he said.
Professor Hypponen, who heads the Centre for Precision Health based at UniSA, says the study also supports the adage the “what’s good for your heart is good for your brain”.
“I was delighted to see the lifestyle choices which appear to work against dementia are those which we know to also be beneficial for reducing the risks of other chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and cancer,” she said.
Professor Hypponen said the large-scale, data-driven approach used in the current study had the potential to suggest new ways of preventing dementia, and researchers would use it to push ahead to explore dementia risk.
The research, published online this month by JAMA, was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles this month.
Funding for dementia research
Meanwhile the federal government has announced it will provide $21 million to fund 13 Australian research projects focusing on risk reduction, prevention and tracking of dementia.
They include two research projects at the National Centre for Healthy Ageing at Peninsula Health-Monash University, one of which will be the first in Australia to use electronic record data to develop ways of monitoring dementia prevalance.
Others will focus on ways of preventing and reducing the risk of dementia in 45-65-year-olds, the benefits of the Mediterranean diet and dementia in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Its’estimated that more than 1.1 million Australians will be living with dementia by 2056.
The latest figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that dementia and Alzhiemer’s are now the leading cause of death among Australian women, accounting for 8,859 deaths in 2017. It was the second most common cause of death among all Australians behind coronary heart disease.