Mental Health and Dementia
Mental Health and Dementia
New findings promote lifestyle modifications.
Posted Jul 24, 2019
Dementia is, unfortunately, a very common phenomenon among the elderly. As of 2017, there were as many as 44 million individuals worldwide living with dementia. In the United States, as many as one in three seniors has some form of dementia when they pass away.
More than just a mental-health issue, dementia can be extremely taxing on the family and friends of the individuals who are struggling with the condition. It is far more severe than merely telling the same story that everyone has heard before. As the condition progresses, individuals with dementia lose their ability to live independently because they find it too difficult to conduct the activities of daily living—from doing household chores down to feeding, dressing, and grooming themselves—and this can often lead to frustration and aggression. In the later stages of dementia, individuals may not recognize family and may come to seem like completely different people. As they exhibit increasingly dysfunctional behavior, it may even make it too difficult for family members to continue to offer care.
Dementia is not a disease itself, but a series of conditions that can arise when an individual is afflicted with one or more of the over 60 diseases that can cause dementia—most of which are quite rare. In approximately 60 percent of dementia cases, the underlying ailment is Alzheimer’s disease. In approximately 30 percent of cases, it is Lewy body dementia or vascular dementia. Of the remaining 10 percent of dementia cases, the underlying condition could be one of the following: Frontotemporal dementia, corticobasal degeneration, depression-related dementia, alcohol-related dementia (typically manifesting as Korsakoff’s syndrome), Creutzfeld-Jacob disease, Huntington’s disease, normal pressure hydrocephalus, or certain forms of Parkinson’s disease and some related conditions. It is often the case that diseases co-exist, most frequently with Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. When this happens, it is known as mixed dementia.
In most cases, genetics plays a dominant role in determining if an individual will develop dementia, and researchers have been relatively fatalistic about the prognosis of the condition. In other words, there has been a longstanding belief that dementia is inevitable for certain individuals with genetic predispositions, and that environmental factors such as lifestyle and diet do not play a major role in determining the course of the diseases that can give rise to dementia, with the obvious exception of alcohol-related dementia or dementia that arises from head injury, stroke, or a disease like meningitis). This is particularly true with forms of dementia that occur earlier in life, such as frontotemporal disorders or Huntington’s disease.
New research, however, indicates that the environmental components behind some common diseases that give rise to dementia have a greater impact than previously thought. This is true for the three most common diseases that cause dementia: Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy body dementia, and vascular dementia.
A New Hope
A new study from the University of Exeter that spanned eight years and analyzed the data of 196,383 adults of European ancestry over age 60 is challenging the belief that one’s genetics solely influence whether one develops dementia. The study found that participants who had both a high genetic risk and an unhealthy lifestyle were three times more likely to develop dementia than those who had a low genetic risk and a healthy lifestyle. This should not come as a tremendous surprise. What was shocking was that the study also found that the risk of dementia was 32 percent lower in participants who had a high genetic risk if they maintained a healthy lifestyle when compared with the group who had a less favorable lifestyle.