Alzheimer’s affects about 5.2 million Americans. Dementia costs an estimated $214 billion a year, reportedly more than cancer or heart disease. Findings from WRAP and other studies are reshaping how experts think about Alzheimer’s and what people can do to try to prevent it.
Obesity, smoking, stress and other factors may have as much to do with getting Alzheimer’s as aging does, said Dr. Mark Sager, longtime director of WRAP.
“What we view as a disease of old age is actually a disease of lifestyle and environment to some extent,” Sager said.
A University of California-San Francisco study in 2011 found that seven factors — diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, depression, physical inactivity and low educational attainment — contribute to up to half of Alzheimer’s cases.
Lowering the prevalence of the risk factors by 25% could prevent nearly 500,000 Alzheimer’s cases in the U.S.
Staying mentally active is also key: People who delay retirement reduce their risk of dementia by 3.2% for every extra year worked.
Meanwhile, Georgetown University researchers said that an experimental blood test — based on 10 lipids, or fats — can predict, with 90 percent accuracy, whether people in their 70s will get Alzheimer’s. The findings need to be confirmed by larger studies.
Reducing the risk
A geriatrics researcher at UW-Madison, will begin a study this summer looking at how two types of exercise affect brain health.
The study, funded by the Alzheimer’s Association, expands on findings from WRAP participants’ reports of their activity levels.
Those who report higher levels of physical activity have less age-related memory loss and fewer age-related changes in brain markers linked to Alzheimer’s. The markers include amyloid protein, glucose metabolism and hippocampus volume.
The effect of age on all four study measures was diminished with increased physical activity.
There is no “definitive evidence” on what can prevent Alzheimer’s, according to the National Institute on Aging. But since the few drugs available to treat the disease generally have little effect, the growing findings on prevention are promising.
You can, without medication, reduce your risk.
Nationwide, as the population ages, staving off Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia is also a financial challenge. Dementia costs $214 billion a year, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Direct dementia care purchases in 2010 were $109 billion, compared with $102 billion for heart disease and $77 billion for cancer.