Healthy lifestyle lowers dementia risk despite genetic predisposition

Having a healthy lifestyle doesn’t only help you lose weight, but it may also offset the genetic risk in developing dementia, a new study published in JAMA found.

A team of researchers at the University of Exeter found that living a healthy lifestyle, including eating a good diet and having regular exercise, may help people with a high genetic risk of dementia, to counterbalance developing it.

The researchers found that the risk of dementia decreased by 32 percent in people with a high genetic risk if they followed a healthy lifestyle, compared to those who had an unhealthy lifestyle. Among the individuals with a high genetic risk, those who watched their diet, performed regular exercise, didn’t smoke, and kept alcohol consumption to a minimum, were less likely to develop dementia later in life.

Worse, the participants with high genetic risk and an unhealthy and unfavorable lifestyle were about three times more likely to develop dementia.

Image Credit: Orawan Pattarawimonchai
Image Credit: Orawan Pattarawimonchai / Shutterstock

Lifestyle and genetic risk of Alzheimer’s disease

The study, which was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2019 in Los Angeles, shows how a healthy lifestyle can contribute to an individual’s overall health, including brain health.

To land to their findings, the team of international researchers analyzed data from nearly 200,000 individuals, who were of European ancestry aged 60 years old without any cognitive impairment or dementia at baseline. These individuals joined the UK Biobank study between 2006 and 2010 and were followed-up until 2016 or 2017.

The UK Biobank study was long-term research of older individuals that tracks several factors that contribute to a range of diseases, which include heart disease, cancer, depression, and dementia.

The team split the participants into five equal groups based on the combination of almost 250,000 genetic variants associated with Alzheimer’s disease in those of European ancestry. From there, the team formulated three categories – low, intermediate, and high dementia genetic risk.

From there, the researchers assessed the genetic risk by looking at previously published information and determined all known genetic factors of Alzheimer’s disease. They weighted every genetic risk factor based on the strength of its link to the disease.

For the participants’ lifestyle, the team grouped them into favorable, intermediate, and unfavorable lifestyle categories. These were based on a self-reported survey on their diet, exercise, alcohol consumption, and smoking. Favorable or healthy lifestyle included those who are not smoking a cigarette, ate a healthy diet, had moderate alcohol consumption, and had regular exercise or physical activity.

The study findings

Among the older adults without cognitive impairment or dementia, having both an unfavorable lifestyle and high genetic risk was linked to higher dementia risk. On the other hand, a favorable lifestyle was linked to a decreased dementia risk even in participants with high genetic risk.

“This is the first study to analyze the extent to which you may offset your genetic risk of dementia by living a healthy lifestyle. Our findings are exciting as they show that we can take action to try to offset our genetic risk for dementia. Sticking to a healthy lifestyle was associated with a reduced risk of dementia, regardless of the genetic risk,” Elzbieta Kuźma, a research fellow at the University of Exeter Medical School, said in a statement.

The new study could open doors to new information on treating Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common type of dementia. This means that certain lifestyle changes early on if a person has a high AD risk, could prevent the development of dementia later in life.

However, the study has limitations, too. For example, the lifestyle data were collected at just one point in the study’s duration. Furthermore, the lifestyle practice was self-reported, and they only included the European ancestry.

Hence, the researchers encourage further studies to strengthen the link of a healthy lifestyle and a reduced risk of dementia.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a neurodegenerative disease and a form of dementia that affects a person’s memory and thinking skills. It is an irreversible, progressive, and incurable illness affecting the brain. Eventually, a person with AD may not be able to carry out simple tasks that were easy to perform in the past.

The signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) may manifest in a person’s mid-60s. Across the globe, about 50 million people are living with dementia. In the United States alone, an estimated 5.8 million people have Alzheimer’s disease, making it the 6th leading cause of mortality or death in the country.

Journal reference:

Lourida I, Hannon E, Littlejohns TJ, et al. Association of Lifestyle and Genetic Risk With Incidence of Dementia. JAMA. Published online July 14, 2019. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.9879, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2738355

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

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Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Angela is a nurse by profession and a writer by heart. She graduated with honors (Cum Laude) for her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Baguio, Philippines. She recently completed a Master's Degree where she specialized in Maternal and Child Nursing and is now working as a clinical instructor and educator in the School of Nursing at the University of Baguio.

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