Surprising Causes of Dementia

Alzheimer's, Featured Article, Healthy Aging, Healthy Living
on November 21, 2011
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Alzheimer’s is the second-most feared disease behind cancer. Scientists still can’t say exactly what causes the condition. But research has revealed several possibilities—many of which simple lifestyle changes can help mitigate. Here eight surprising health conditions that could up your risk for dementia.

High blood pressure. A recent study in the journal Neurology found that people with high blood pressure sustained damage to blood vessels in the brain faster than people with normal pressure. What’s more, people with hypertension scored worse on tests that measured the ability to plan or make decisions, so-called executive function.

Too much weight. In the same study, the researchers, from the University of California at Davis, noticed that being obese in mid-life put people in the top 25 percent of those with a fast rate of decline on tests that measured executive function. An earlier study done at Kaiser Permanente in California found that people who carry excess weight in their abdominal area up their risk of dementia threefold.

Type 2 diabetes. It causes the hippocampus—the part of the brain that lets us form memories—to shrink, according to the University of California at Davis findings. In another study, Japanese researchers reported that people with diabetes are twice as likely to develop dementia as people whose blood sugar is normal.

Smoking. In addition to being bad for your lungs, it’s bad for your brain. The California team found that smokers lose more brain volume than nonsmokers and have more damage to blood vessels in the brain.

High cholesterol. Not only is it bad for your heart, but high cholesterol also affects your head. Japanese researchers recently reported that people with high cholesterol have more plaques—a protein fragment—in the brain than people who have normal or low cholesterol readings.  A buildup of plaques and another protein called tangles are common in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.

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Hearing loss. Not being able to hear well could up the risk for dementia, according to a study published in the Archives of Neurology.  Researchers followed 639 people for nearly 12 years, checking their hearing and cognitive abilities every one to two years. People who had mild hearing loss had a twofold risk of developing dementia; those with moderate hearing loss had a threefold risk; and those with severe loss had a fivefold risk.

Sleep apnea. Older women who have sleep apnea—pauses in breathing or shallow breaths during sleep—are nearly twice as likely to develop dementia within five years as those who don’t have the sleep problem. A possible reason: The disruption in breathing may keep enough oxygen from reaching the brain and other organs. Over time, that could affect cognitive abilities.

Depression. Major depression seems to shrink the hippocampus and contribute to more plaques and tangles.