Dr. Joseph C. Maroon, MD, vice chairman and clinical professor, Heindl Scholar in Neuroscience, Department of Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and team neurosurgeon of the Pittsburgh Steelers, noted several studies that link lifestyle and brain health.
One, published in Sweden in 2011, showed that elderly people who had been overweight or obese during middle age were 80 percent more likely to develop all types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and reduced blood flow dementia, compared those with normal weight during that phase of life. In the study, researchers looked at more than 8,500 twins over several decades. Nearly 30 percent of the subjects were overweight or obese in their 40s and 50s. By the age of 65, 350 (about four percent) twins were diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
In addition, scientists at the University of Eastern Finland and at Kuopio University Hospital, Finland, analyzed data from 21,123 members of a health care system who took part in a survey between 1978 and 1985, when they were between ages 50 and 60 years. Diagnoses of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia were tracked from January 1, 1994, when participants were 71.6 years old, on average, through July 31, 2008.
The study showed that those who were heavy smokers in middle age (two or more packs/day) had twice the risk of developing dementia compared to those that didn’t smoke.
“Both excessive weight and smoking are related to increased risk of mental decline by inducing excessive inflammation and production of free radicals in the body and brain, and also result in reduced brain blood flow,” said Maroon. “Treatments and prevention strategies designed to address these two areas have shown success. In fact, numerous studies looking at conditions like arthritis have shown that those taking chronic long-term anti-inflammatory medications have a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s and dementia. This has also been found in people with heart disease on chronic aspirin therapy. Both of these medications can reduce the inflammatory process in the brain and help to counter inflammation from a variety of causes.”
A sedentary lifestyle, one adopted by many Americans, is also a significant risk to dementia, Maroon said, adding that reduced blood flow, increased inflammation and lower levels of brain function can all be prevented by exercise. “In fact, routine exercise has been shown to actually stimulate the growth of new brain cells.”
A study presented in September 2011 gives credence to the idea that sedentary lifestyle is the greatest risk for developing dementia. Researchers investigating potentially risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease found that physical inactivity increases risk by 21 percent, smoking by 11 percent and obesity by seven percent. “Although not investigated together, imagine what the risk would be if you had all three,” Maroon said. “This same group concluded that 25 percent of Alzheimer’s disease cases might be prevented by risk factor reductions.”