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08 Apr

Dementia risk factors have been identified in research that aims to prevent dementia and disability in older people.

Blood pressure control, adequate physical activity, and maintenance of lung function could be key to tackling dementia and disability later in life – probably the two largest unsolved health problems of our ageing society – suggests research funded by the ESRC and the British Heart Foundation (BHF).

In the first study to examine physical functioning and cognitive functioning together, the findings show that those who lead an active lifestyle in middle age could be protected from dementia (mainly in the form of Alzheimer’s disease) and loss of independence in later life.

Researchers tasked with looking at preventative measures to tackle dementia and disability in later years looked at data from the Whitehall II study of more than 10,000 UK men and women which, since 1985, has provided a unique source of information on healthy ageing.

Dementia Risk Factors

The team at UCL, led by Professor Eric Brunner, investigated the later influences of 12 separate risk factors recorded when Whitehall II participants were 50 years old.

Physical inactivity, poor lung function and high blood pressure emerged from the analysis as the mid-life risk factors most clearly and robustly linked both to low cognitive and physical functioning 18 years later.

Key findings of ‘Midlife risk factors for impaired physical and cognitive functioning at older ages: A cohort study’ showed that:

of the 12 risk factors studied, physical activity, high blood pressure and lung function were the three important predictors of poor functioning around age 70.

fruit and vegetable consumption, smoking, alcohol consumption, sleep, depression, obesity, blood cholesterol, blood glucose and a blood marker of inflammation were linked with neither or only one of poor cognitive functioning and physical functioning 18 years later.

“Until now, risk factors associated with both types of age-related impairment – dementia and disability – have not been known,” explained Professor Brunner.

“Our research continues to build knowledge for dementia prevention. The findings back up recent research which suggests that if blood vessels and organs, including the brain, age more slowly, dementia may be delayed or even prevented.”

This paper is particularly significant due to the age of its participants, and long timescale of the study.

“Usually study participants are recruited about age 70 and then followed up for five years or so,” explained Professor Brunner. “The participants in our follow-up study were age 50 at baseline, then tested for their physical and cognitive function about 18 years later.”

Dementia Risk Factors

The findings not only highlight the importance of living healthier lifestyles, but demonstrate the need for future policies to improve wellbeing and independent living at older ages – with the focus being to tackle the three high-risk factors: physical inactivity, poor lung function and high blood pressure in mid-life.

“Once our findings have been reproduced in other large studies, focused on the value of physical exercise, control of blood pressure and maintaining lung function, the next step will be translating these findings into health policy,” Professor Brunner concluded.

Dr Mike Knapton, Associate Medical Director at the BHF, which helped fund the research, said: “Dementia is a growing problem for individuals, families and society as a whole. This research helps us understand what is the best way to prevent this devastating condition, which is associated with significant disability, anxiety and fear.

“Keeping active and controlling our blood pressure are good for the heart and this research suggests what’s good for the heart, is also good for the head. Evidence from these studies has been crucial to the fight against heart disease and this work will have a similar impact in combating dementia.”

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