Study: Here Are the Three Biggest Risk Factors for Dementia

The three factors that researchers recently identified in a new study impact brain areas most vulnerable to aging and conditions like Alzheimer's disease.

Previous research by scientists from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom identified a network of brain regions that are vulnerable to the effects of the aging process and conditions like schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease. However, whether modifiable risk factors such as lifestyle choices, physical exercise, and diet impact these regions and ultimately lead to dementia is unknown.

In a new study published on March 27 in Nature Communications, the same team of scientists examined the brain scans of around 40,000 participants from the UK Biobank and assessed 161 modifiable risk factors for dementia to determine which factors had the greatest impact on vulnerable brain regions.

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The team classified modifiable risk factors into these 15 broad categories:

Blood pressure

Cholesterol

Diabetes

Weight

Alcohol consumption

Smoking

Depressive mood

Inflammation

Pollution

Hearing

Sleep

Socialization

Diet

Physical activity

Education

Using brain scans and participants' Biobank data, the researchers assessed which risk factors impacted the specific brain regions more than the normal aging process.

After analyzing the data, the team observed that three specific modifiable dementia risk factors — diabetes, nitrogen dioxide from traffic-related air pollution, and alcohol intake frequency — stood out as most damaging to vulnerable brain areas.

In a press release, lead author Professor Gwenaëlle Douaud from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford said, "We know that a constellation of brain regions degenerates earlier in aging, and in this new study, we have shown that these specific parts of the brain are most vulnerable to diabetes, traffic-related air pollution — increasingly a major player in dementia — and alcohol, of all the common risk factors for dementia."

In addition, the team found several genetic variations, and two antigens from a little-known blood group also influenced this fragile brain network.

Of the three primary risk factors for dementia the researchers identified, two are more easily modified. For example, though it may be challenging to avoid traffic pollution, people can take steps to reduce their alcohol consumption.

Moreover, individuals at risk for diabetes could employ diabetes prevention strategies, such as maintaining an ideal weight, exercising, and eating a healthy diet, to help reduce dementia risks.

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