Three Key Factors Identified in Dementia Risk

brain scan
Alzheimer's and dementia research | Image by TEK IMAGE/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY via Getty Images

A new study identified three of the most significant contributing factors to developing dementia — all of which are to some degree modifiable.

Using UK Biobank data, researchers from the United States, Canada, Italy, and the UK investigated genetic and modifiable risk factors driving brain diseases. Their results were published in Nature Communications late last month. Having previously identified a spot in the brain vulnerable to aging and disease that appears during adolescence, the researchers aimed to grasp how much of an impact different risk factors have on cognitive decline.

Health, genetic, and brain scan data were compiled on 39,676 Biobank participants aged between 44 and 83. They focused on the fragile areas of the brain — the “higher-order brain regions” responsible for long-term memory, executive tasks, working memory, and attention — that tend to deteriorate first as people age, as Dr. Logan DuBose, a resident physician at George Washington University who was not part of the research, explained to Medical News Today.

“The researchers’ main goal was to study the things that make these brain regions degrade faster, so they can inform us about ways to avoid certain risk factors and preserve brain health,” he remarked.

Overall, they identified three key modifiable risk factors playing determinative roles in cognitive decline. These were diabetes, nitrogen dioxide air pollution, and alcohol intake frequency. Most interestingly, the researchers found considerable overlap between these three modifiable risk factors and genetic ones. For instance, participants with a specific type of XG gene were found to be more affected by traffic-related air pollution than others.

“This insight is crucial, especially as technology advances our ability to know a person’s genetic predispositions,” Dr. Dubose said. “Knowing a person’s genes and the associated risks those genes cause allows healthcare providers and patients to intervene early, potentially slowing disease progression or damage that otherwise would be more accelerated.”

Diabetes is a growing health issue that is directly linked to rising rates of obesity worldwide. In the United States, the latest data from the CDC revealed that 1 in 5 American adults was obese in 2022. In Texas, this share was 35.5% among adults and 17% among children between the ages of 10 and 17.

Many experts have touted the benefits of GLP-1 medications, originally developed to treat diabetes, not only for weight loss but also to reduce cravings for alcohol, as covered by The Dallas Express. The weight loss drugs mimic the GLP-1 hormone that is normally released when food is consumed. This effectively slows the digestion of food and curbs feelings of hunger in the brain, causing a person to eat less. Yet individuals taking these medications have also reported a decreased desire to consume alcohol and tobacco, driving new research into some potential applications in substance abuse treatment.

As researchers continue to conduct revealing studies on the brain, a better understanding of why cognitive health declines with aging has emerged. For instance, scientists in Sweden recently linked an increased dementia risk to the virus behind common cold sores, as covered by The Dallas Express.

It is estimated that around 5.8 million Americans have dementia — the most common form of which is Alzheimer’s disease, according to the CDC. This figure is expected to explode by 2060, with 14 million expected to be diagnosed with dementia due in part to the increased risks posed by obesity-related conditions, including heart disease and diabetes.

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