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Experts say genetics plays a major role in dementia risk. So do exercise, diet, sleep, and social contact. Getty Images
  • A new survey reveals that half of older adults believe they are at risk of developing dementia.
  • Experts say the survey results may mean people will be more vigilant in watching for dementia symptoms.
  • Experts add that the best prevention measures against dementia are exercise, diet, and lifestyle.

Nearly half of those between the ages of 50 and 64 believe they are at risk of developing dementia, according to a new survey published today.

More than 1,000 people in that age range were polled and almost 50 percent said they were at least somewhat likely to develop dementia.

Dr. Zaldy S. Tan, medical director of the UCLA Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care Program, says he isn’t surprised.

“Dementia is one of the most feared age-related conditions for people in middle age or beyond,” he told Healthcare Website. “People in middle age are in the age group where they see dementia in their relatives, perhaps in their older friends. It’s not surprising at all that they are concerned about their own risk of developing dementia in the future.”

The numbers vary on the real risk, but a 2018 study from the United Kingdom reported the lifetime risk of developing dementia for women is almost 15 percent while it’s 9 percent for men.

Tan is optimistic about the findings of the survey. He argues a general awareness of risk factors is important.

“Awareness is always a strength. Awareness of one’s risk of future disease will hopefully lead to proactive action, in terms of prevention, healthier lifestyles, earlier diagnosis, and eventually treatments when that becomes available,” he said. “I think general awareness of one’s cognition without being anxious about it is a good thing because perhaps that will lead to people presenting to their physicians earlier.”

“Worrying about it is certainly not productive if it’s not translated into action to improve one’s risk profile,” he added.

In the United States, nearly 6 million people live with dementia.

Of those, approximately 60 to 70 percent have Alzheimer’s disease.

That number is expected to rise as life expectancy increases. Some projections suggest that by 2060, nearly 14 million people ages 65 or older will be diagnosed with a form of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Dementia is an umbrella term for conditions or disease that cause a decline in memory and thinking skills.

These disorders are caused by abnormal changes in the brain that trigger a decline in cognitive ability. These changes impact a person’s ability to think clearly, problem solve, use language, and go about their daily life. Their behavior, emotions, and relationships can also be impacted.

The effects of dementia vary and the disease doesn’t have a single cause, but there are a number of factors that could increase an individual’s risk of developing dementia.

“The risk factors are having a parent with dementia, other genetic factors, lack of exercise, Western diet, obesity, diabetes, other medical disorders such as hypertension, lack of sleep, social isolation, hearing loss, depression, and chronic use of drugs with anticholinergic properties,” Dr. Frank M. Longo, PhD, professor and chair of the department of neurology at Stanford University in California, told Healthcare Website.

Most dementia cases are progressive, and symptoms may appear slowly and gradually worsen.

Symptoms can include problems with short-term memory loss, language difficulties, trouble planning or preparing meals, difficulty remembering appointments, inability to use technology such as a remote control or phone, a decline in job performance, and a loss of empathy.

For most forms of progressive dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, there is no treatment that can stop the progression of the disease. There is also no cure.

Of those surveyed, nearly 32 percent endorsed the use of fish oil or omega-3 fatty acids for dementia prevention.

Slightly more than 39 percent reported using other vitamins or supplements.

However only 5 percent had discussed dementia prevention with their doctor.

Dr. Verna R. Porter is a neurologist and director of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease programs at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

She argues that the survey indicates middle-aged people may not always accurately estimate their risk for developing dementia, and this may leave them vulnerable to trying treatments not backed by science.

“The concern has been raised that if people tend to overestimate their relative risk of developing dementia they may be overzealous to try new non-FDA-approved ‘preventative therapies,’ which have not been fully vetted, for example ginkgo biloba or vitamin supplements that are without proven efficacy,” Porter told Healthcare Website.

“This could result in inappropriate use of various supplements and interventions, resulting in excessive costs. The other concern would be that the use of these unproven ‘preventative therapies’ could actually delay a person from seeking an appropriate medical diagnosis and subsequent treatment,” she added.

All of the experts who spoke with Healthcare Website said one of the most important steps a person can take to reducing their risk of dementia is exercise.

Tan argues exercise is the only modifiable risk factor that has consistently been proven to reduce risk of dementia.

Managing existing conditions and improving lifestyle factors is also important.

“We believe that individuals do have some power to influence their risk of dementia, and we are now hard at work with our research to prove it and understand how big an impact we can have on dementia risk through lifestyle changes, such as diet and exercise,” Dr. Jeffrey Burns, MS, neurocognitive division chief at the University of Kansas Medical Center, told Healthcare Website.

“We believe that what is good for the heart is good for the brain,” he said. “So, if you have high blood pressure and cholesterol, treat them aggressively. Exercise and eat right. It’s never too late to have an impact. It’s also never too early to start, and data suggests the earlier you start, the bigger the impact you may have on your brain health.”