Good news: Dementia has declined and education may be the reason

November 22, 2016 Providence Health Team

Positive news from a new survey of Americans ages 65 and older: The percentage of older people who are suffering from dementia has gone down.

Dementia can rob a person of memory and damage cognitive skills such as the ability to reason, use sound judgment and make appropriate decisions. The disease can be emotionally devastating and costly for individuals and families when a person can no longer manage his or her life.

But the percentage of older Americans with dementia declined 24 percent between 2000 and 2012, according to a new study out of the University of Michigan Medical School. Put another way, the percentage of older Americans with dementia dropped from 11.6 percent to 8.8 percent during that time.

The researchers said that people with the most education had the lowest chance of developing dementia.

“It does seem that the investments this country made in education after the Second World War are paying off now in better brain health among older adults,” said David R. Weir, one of the authors of the paper. “But the number of older adults is growing so rapidly that the overall burden of dementia is still going up.”

There is growing evidence that cardiovascular disease can contribute to dementia, but the researchers noted that people are receiving better treatment for cardiovascular risk factors, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, and this also may help stave off dementia.

The researchers caution that more work is needed to understand why dementia rates are down. With more clarity, they say, we should be able to identify potential risk factors and protective factors for dementia.

Even so, obesity rates are up

While dementia rates declined, the rates of obesity and diabetes among people 65 and older rose significantly between 2000 and 2012. And diabetes is associated with a higher risk of dementia.

Researchers say the contradictory trends may be explained by better treatments for diabetes. Better treatments mean that common diabetes-related complications, such as heart and stroke, also declined.

“The full set of social, behavioral, and medical factors contributing to the decline in dementia prevalence is still uncertain,” the authors wrote, while calling for continuing monitoring of trends.

Brain health and the ‘cognitive reserve’

By starting education early and continuing to stimulate the brain through life, a person can build a “cognitive reserve” of brain pathways that are more resistant to being eroded by dementia, the researchers said.

They described the importance of early and lifelong education and continuing stimulation of the brain as a potentially “potent strategy for the primary prevention of dementia” around the world.

But those benefits are not evenly shared in the population, they noted.

“More baby boomers have completed some higher education than any previous generation, but the trend toward more education appears to be leveling off in the U.S. And there are clear disparities in educational attainment according to wealth and ethnicity,” said Kenneth Langa, M.D., a professor at the University of Michigan’s Medical School and lead author of the study. “These differences in education and wealth may actually be creating disparities in brain health and, by extension, the likelihood of being able to work and be independent in our older years.”

Keep your brain and heart in shape

Experts offer some tips to help you keep exercising your brain as you age:

  • Get an adequate amount of sleep.
  • Socialize regularly and spend time around people.
  • Work puzzles, play a musical instrument or learn another language.
  • Get some exercise, because it stimulates memory and thinking.
    • Include endurance exercises, such as walking or riding a bike.
    • Do activities that promote balance, strength and focused attention.

Talk to your provider about keeping your brain active and working to protect yourself against cardiovascular disease. Ask whether your lifestyle is helping you stay as healthy as possible, both mentally and physically.

You can find a Providence provider here.

To learn more

We’ve written previously on brain fitness and dementia.

You can read about the symptoms and treatments for dementia at the website for the Alzheimer’s Association.

You can read the study, “A Comparison of the Prevalence of Dementia in the United States in 2000 and 2012,” at the JAMA Internal Medicine website. The University of Michigan Health System wrote a press release about the study, which you can read here.

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