Sunday September 15, 2019

Healthy Lifestyle Can Cut Risk of Developing Alzheimer Even if You Have High Genetic Risk: Study

After about eight years of study, 1.8% of those with high genetic risk and poor lifestyles had developed dementia versus 0.6% of folks with low genetic risk and healthy habits

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scientists, dementia, prevention, VR
Living a healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk of Alzheimer's or other dementia, even if you have a genetic risk, a large study found. VOA

A healthy lifestyle can cut your risk of developing Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia even if you have genes that raise your risk for these mind-destroying diseases, a large study has found.

People with high genetic risk and poor health habits were about three times more likely to develop dementia versus those with low genetic risk and good habits, researchers reported Sunday. Regardless of how much genetic risk someone had, a good diet, adequate exercise, limiting alcohol and not smoking made dementia less likely.

“I consider that good news,” said John Haaga of the U.S. National Institute on Aging, one of the study’s many sponsors. “No one can guarantee you’ll escape this awful disease” but you can tip the odds in your favor with clean living, he said. Results were discussed at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles and published online by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

50 million people

About 50 million people have dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type. Genes and lifestyle contribute to many diseases, but researchers only recently have had the tools and information to do large studies to see how much each factor matters.

healthy lifestyle, alzheimer
After about eight years of study, 1.8% of those with high genetic risk and poor lifestyles had developed dementia versus 0.6% of folks with low genetic risk and healthy habits. Pixabay

One such study a few years ago found that healthy living could help overcome genetic risk for heart disease. Now researchers have shown the same to be true for dementia.

Dr. Elzbieta Kuzma and colleagues at the University of Exeter Medical School in England used the UK Biobank to study nearly 200,000 people 60 or older with no signs or symptoms of dementia at the start. Their genetic risk was classified as high, medium or low based on dozens of mutations known to affect dementia. They also were grouped by lifestyle factors.

By the numbers

After about eight years of study, 1.8% of those with high genetic risk and poor lifestyles had developed dementia versus 0.6% of folks with low genetic risk and healthy habits. Among those with the highest genetic risk, just more than 1% of those with favorable lifestyles developed dementia compared to nearly 2% of those with poor lifestyles.

One limitation: Researchers only had information on mutations affecting people of European ancestry, so it’s not known whether the same is true for other racial or ethnic groups.

alzheimer, healthy lifestyle
Among those with the highest genetic risk, just more than 1% of those with favorable lifestyles developed dementia compared to nearly 2% of those with poor lifestyles. Pixabay

Genes are not destiny

The results should give encouragement to people who fear that gene mutations alone determine their destiny, said Dr. Rudy Tanzi, a genetics expert at Massachusetts General Hospital. Less than 5% of the ones tied to Alzheimer’s are “fully penetrant,” meaning that they guarantee you’ll get the disease, he said.

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“That means that with 95% of the mutations, your lifestyle will make a difference,” Tanzi said. “Don’t be too worried about your genetics. Spend more time being mindful of living a healthy life.”

One previous study in Sweden and Finland rigorously tested the effect of a healthy lifestyle by assigning one group to follow one and included a comparison group that did not. It concluded that healthy habits could help prevent mental decline. The Alzheimer’s Association is sponsoring a similar study underway now in the United States. Healthy living also is the focus of new dementia prevention guidelines that the World Health Organization released in February. (VOA)

Next Story

“Whether Virtual Reality Can Prevent Dementia” Scientists Study

A study at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine sees if a dose of VR can help prevent age-related cognitive decline and dementia

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scientists, dementia, prevention, VR
Keck School of Medicine of USC assistant professor Judy Pa watches as Wayne Garcia participates in a study that looks at whether virtual reality combined with exercise can prevent dementia. VOA

For three days a week, Wayne Garcia has been getting an unconventional workout. He starts by putting on a virtual reality (VR) headset. He then gets on a specially designed exercise bike and starts peddling. He is taking part in a study at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine to see if a dose of VR can help prevent age-related cognitive decline and dementia.

“It’s very scary that one day that could be me. Grandparents both had dementia. My father, he had dementia, as well, and my mom has dementia,” said Garcia, who painfully remembered his father reading the newspaper upside down and almost setting the house on fire by putting a towel on the heater.

“Just the sadness — you remember what your dad was like, what your mom was like when they were all good, and then the decline now. And now you’re taking care of them rather than when they used to take care of you,” Garcia said.

scientists, dementia, prevention, VR
Living a healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s or other dementia, even if you have a genetic risk, a large study found. VOA

Preventing dementia

Garcia is participating to see if using virtual reality concurrently with exercise can help prevent dementia in the future.

“The actual diagnostic definition of dementia is when a person is no longer able to take care of themselves, things like paying the bills, driving, cooking for themselves, dressing themselves. This is really late stage. It happens much later in the progression of the disease. A lot of the neurodegenerative diseases, which are the underlying ideologies of dementia, take 10, 20 years to develop,” said Judy Pa, assistant professor at the Institute for Neuroimaging and Informatics in the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California (USC).

Pa is part of a team of researchers studying the effects of virtual reality on the brain and cognition related to aging. Pa said unlike 2D games, VR provides a first-person, 3D immersive experience that is critical to spatial memory training.

“Our goal is to prevent dementia (and) to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. There are no effective treatments yet. We hope that we will get there eventually, but my perspective and the research that we do in my laboratory at USC is really surrounding prevention,” Pa said.

scientists, dementia, prevention, VR
The goal is to prevent or even delay the onset of cognitive decline so people can have a solid quality of life during their golden years. Pixabay

Targeting risk factors

The VR study targets some of the risk factors of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive dysfunction, which include a sedentary lifestyle and lack of cognitive and social stimulation. The VR study exercises the participants’ body and brain at the same time, challenging the memory and decision-making part of their brain.

Participants have to pedal on the exercise bike and keep their heart rate up. In the VR experience, they are trying to learn and remember a route while picking up food items by hitting the brakes, then feeding the food to some animals.

“Understanding changes in the brain that happen with exercise, changes in the brain that happen when you’re in an enriched environment and putting those two together, and that’s what our intervention is currently targeting,” Pa said.

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Even if virtual reality can help, it may not be for everyone. In a feasibility study, 4 out of 20 people withdrew from the research because of symptoms of motion sickness. Pa will be conducting trials over the next year with participants who are 50 to 80 years old to gather additional data.

Garcia has high hopes for what VR might mean for the future. “There might be a place where you could go, and you can get your daily dose of virtual reality and cardio to keep the mind going,” he said.

Still, in the early stages of research, the goal is to prevent or even delay the onset of cognitive decline so people can have a solid quality of life during their golden years. (VOA)