Can Dementia Be Prevented? Education May Bolster Brain Against Risk

Feb 12, 2016

Photo credit: Nanette Hoogslag/Getty Images/Ikon Images

By Nancy Shute

The odds of getting Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia are declining for people who are more educated and avoiding heart disease, a study finds. The results suggest that people may have some control over their risk of dementia as they age.

This isn’t the first study to find that the incidence of dementia is waning, but it may be the best so far. Researchers looked at 30 years of records from more than 5,000 people in the famed Framingham Heart Study, which has closely tracked the health of volunteers in Framingham, Mass.

They found that the incidence of dementia declined about 20 percent per decade starting in the 1970s — but only in people who had at least a high school education. The decline in people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s wasn’t statistically significant, but there were fewer people with Alzheimer’s, which could have affected that result.

The study, which was published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, also looked at risk factors for heart disease and stroke, including smoking, obesity and high blood pressure. They found that the people who had better markers for cardiovascular health, such as normal blood pressure, were also less likely to develop dementia.

“That’s telling us that perhaps better management of cardiovascular disease could potentially help in the reduction of dementia,” says Claudia Satizabal, an author of the study and an instructor in neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine.

To figure out what this all means, we called Dr. Kenneth Langa, a professor at the University of Michigan who also studies trends in dementia. Here are highlights from the conversation edited for length and clarity.

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