A new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine indicates that rates of dementia have dropped in people over age 65.
The study involved more than 21,000 people across the country, with an average age of 75. Researchers began the study in 1992 and focused on people over 50, collecting data and conducting interviews with participants every two years about their mental abilities, health, income and issues in their lives. Participants also underwent physical exams that included taking their body measurement and collecting blood and saliva samples.
Researchers discovered that dementia rates in seniors decreased from 11.6 percent in 2000 to 8.8 percent 12 years later.
“It’s definitely good news,” said Dr. Kenneth Langa, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan and the study’s co-author. “Even without a cure for Alzheimer’s disease or a new medication, there are things that we can do socially and medically and behaviorally that can significantly reduce the risk.”
Why are dementia rates declining? Researchers think that as the American population has become more educated, brain health has improved. In 2000, the average amount of education for an American was 11.8 years — just shy of a high school education. By 2012, the average had increased to 12.7 years.
“Our study, along with prior studies, supports the notion that ‘cognitive reserve’ resulting from early life and lifelong education and cognitive stimulation may be a potent strategy for the primary prevention of dementia in both high- and low-income countries around the world,” the study’s authors wrote.
Heart health, which has been linked to brain health, also has improved among Americans. Better treatment for diabetes and heart disease also may play a role, researchers say.
While these numbers equate to one million fewer Americans with dementia, millions of people will continue to grapple with this condition. Dementia, which involves memory loss and changes in cognitive abilities associated with age, affects up to five million Americans (Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia). There will be 84 million Americans over age 65 by the year 2050 — double the population of this age group today — and these shifting demographics will lead to more seniors with dementia even if the rate of them developing this condition is on the decline.
“There is an important difference between prevalence rate (number of people with the disease divided by the total population) and the prevalence number (number of people with the disease),” the Alzheimer’s Association said in a statement. “Although these recent findings indicate that a person’s risk of dementia at any given age may be decreasing slightly, it should be noted that the total number of Americans with Alzheimer’s and other dementias is expected to continue to increase dramatically.”
No matter which ways the number shift, the medical community is placing more emphasis on finding ways to prevent dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s. Ongoing research has focused on people who are genetically predisposed to get Alzheimer’s. The National Institutes of Health is currently backing a study aimed at discovering ways to prevent the early onset of the disease. Researchers say studying people who have a genetic mutation that increases their likelihood of getting the disease could help the medical community pinpoint ways to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s in the general population, as more than 1,000 Americans develop the disease every day.
The number of Americans who will develop dementia is expected to rise, but you can do several things to reduce your risk of this condition. More exercise, eating a heart-healthy diet, maintaining social connections and keeping the brain sharp with games, puzzles and regular reading can prevent or delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s, according to research.
As researchers focus on prevention and possibly a cure, reducing your risk factors is key. Taking the steps I’ve outlined above can help you stay mentally sharp as you age.