Written by Jessica Norris — Fact checked by Anna Guildford, Ph.D.
Despite the many people impacted by dementia, there is still much about it that experts do not understand. For example, what risk factors make it more likely that someone will develop dementia? Do these factors change with age?
A recent study published in the journal American Academy of Neurology found that vascular risk factors for dementia may vary based on people’s age.
Dementia: a significant problem
Dementia is a broad category of disorders. The National Institute on Aging defines dementia as “the loss of cognitive functioning — thinking, remembering, and reasoning.” There are different types of dementia, but one of the most common is Alzheimer’s disease.
People with dementia can experience a wide range of symptoms, including the following:
- Problems with memory, communication, or attention
- Changes in judgment or ability to reason
- Confusion or difficulty with problem-solving
- Problems speaking or writing
- Difficulty carrying out everyday activities
Often what specifically causes someone to develop dementia remains a mystery. This is why researchers are constantly working to discover the risk factors. One area of interest is how cardiovascular health links to dementia risk.
Risk factors change based on age
The study used a diverse cohort of participants and followed participants over ten years. They specifically looked at the risk of dementia based on cardiovascular problems and age. They included participants that were a part of the Framingham Stroke Risk Profile. The study included almost 5,000 participants.
They looked at the participants’ health problems, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, and then the number of participants who developed dementia during the follow-up.
Researchers found that the risk associated with different disorders changed based on participants’ ages.
The study authors noted the following highlights:
- At the age of 55, the most significant risk factors associated with developing dementia were systolic blood pressure and diabetes mellitus.
- At the age of 65, the most significant risk factor associated with developing dementia was heart disease.
- At the ages of 70 and 75, the most significant risk factors associated with developing dementia were diabetes mellitus and stroke.
- At the age of 80, the most significant risk factors associated with developing dementia were diabetes mellitus, stroke, and arrhythmia.
This information indicates that the risk factors vary between individuals and that preventive measures should take these factors into account. Study author Dr. Emer McGrath explained to Medical News Today:
“Predicting a person’s future risk of dementia likely needs to be made at an individual level, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to predicting dementia risk. Indeed, our findings would support the use of age-specific dementia risk scores.”
“Based on what we are seeing in terms of vascular risk factors, it is likely that controlling high blood pressure, preventing diabetes mellitus, and following a healthy lifestyle could help reduce a person’s risk of dementia later on.” — Dr. Emer McGrath
The study provided excellent information and included a large number of participants. Dr. Clair Sexton, the senior director of scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association, who was not involved in the study, was optimistic about the study’s findings.
“This is an interesting paper that adds to our growing knowledge around risk factors for dementia by suggesting risk profiles can differ with age. Being able to assess risk factors in a more individualized way—such as through age groups—may be important to inform tailored care,” she told MNT.
The study adds to our growing understanding of risk factors for dementia which can help doctors identify people most at risk. It may also lead to the development of new treatments further down the road.
“[The findings are] also relevant as early targeting of modifiable risk factors is crucial for reducing an individual’s risk of cognitive decline.” — Dr. Clair Sexton
The study had several limitations. Recording dementia-free participants at 5 yearly intervals may have excluded participants with more severe vascular disease who may have died before a diagnosis of dementia, meaning the study may have underestimated the risk between vascular disease and dementia risk.
Researchers did not use all testing methods available to examine vascular problems or dementia. They diagnosed dementia based on clinical criteria rather than biomarker-based criteria.
They also did not study dementia subtypes in this study. There were some data collection and interpretation problems, likely influenced by sample size.
Dr. McGrath also highlighted the following limitations:
“Our study was predominantly in a white population, and studies in more diverse populations need to be performed. The ideal risk prediction score for dementia still needs to be determined. An approach utilizing both clinical risk factors and biomarker data will likely be optimal.”