Sound body, sound mind: Healthy lifestyle may counteract genetic risk of dementia

EXETER, England — Dementia is a blanket medical term generally used to describe any condition that causes a decline in mental cognition and memory loss. Unfortunately, dementia is often passed on genetically, meaning many people are predisposed to developing symptoms later on in life. Now, a new study out of the University of Exeter finds that living a healthy lifestyle may be able to offset the genetic risk of developing dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most prevalent form of dementia, but any type of dementia diagnosis can be devastating for both the patient and their families. In many ways the condition is even harder to deal with and treat than a more physical ailment because it robs the individual of their very identity and cherished memories. Furthermore, dementia diagnoses are on the rise all over the world, with projected cases only expected to increase as more and more people are living longer than ever before.

That’s why it is so significant that researchers may have discovered an effective strategy to lower an individual’s chances of developing dementia. The study found that, among people with a genetic predisposition towards dementia, those who actively lead a healthy lifestyle were 32% less likely to develop it than those who lived an unhealthy lifestyle.

Furthermore, participants in the study with a high genetic risk of dementia and unhealthy lifestyle were nearly three times more likely to develop a form of dementia compared to people with a low genetic risk and healthy lifestyle.

“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.” Joint lead author Dr. Elbieta Kuma explains in a release.

For the study, researchers analyzed data on 196,383 adults of European ancestry over the age of 60. Each person was placed in one of three groups; high, intermediate, and low genetic risk. Over the course of eight years, 1,769 cases of dementia were identified among the participants.

Researchers also placed participants in three lifestyle groups; favorable, intermediate, or unfavorable. In order to gauge each person’s lifestyle choices, participants were asked to report their diets, physical activity, and any smoking or drinking habits. Participants in the favorable lifestyle group reported no current smoking, regular exercise, a healthy diet, and little to moderate alcohol consumption.

Living a healthy lifestyle was found to reduce dementia risk across all three genetic risk groups.

“This research delivers a really important message that undermines a fatalistic view of dementia. 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,” comments Joint lead author Dr. David Llewellyn.

The study is published in the scientific journal JAMA.

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John Anderer

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