TORONTO, Ontario — Drinking, smoking, and having diabetes can age your brain by up to 20 years more than healthy people, a new study reveals.
Scientists in Toronto say lifestyle habits and certain health conditions could be more important than age when it comes to developing dementia. They looked at eight different risk factors, also including substance abuse, hearing loss, brain injury, and depression, concluding that having any one can add three years to your cognitive age.
People with no dementia risk factors can have similar brain health as people who are 10 to 20 years younger than those engaging in riskier lifestyles. The study is one of the first to examine a person’s lifestyle in terms of increasing their risk for dementia onset throughout their entire life. The researchers found that even at 18 years-old, lifestyle could begin to set someone on a path to dementia later on.
The good news is that the risks are extremely modifiable, allowing people to keep their brains young by kicking their bad habits.
“Our results suggest lifestyle factors may be more important than age in determining someone’s level of cognitive functioning. This is great news, since there’s a lot you can do to modify these factors, such as managing diabetes, addressing hearing loss, and getting the support you need to quit smoking,” says Dr. Annalise LaPlume, a postdoctoral Fellow at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI), in a media release.
“While most studies of this nature look at mid- and older-adulthood, we also included data from participants as young as 18, and we found that risk factors had a negative impact on cognitive performance across all ages. This is crucial as it means risk factors can and should be addressed as early as possible,” adds Dr. Nicole Anderson, Senior Scientist at the RRI.
“All in all, our research shows that you have the power to decrease your risk of cognitive decline and dementia,” says Dr. LaPlume. “Start addressing any risk factors you have now, whether you’re 18 or 90, and you’ll support your brain health to help yourself age fearlessly.”
Which behaviors can lead to dementia?
The team analyzed data from 22,117 people between 18 and 89 who completed the Cogniciti Brain Health Assessment, developed by Baycrest.
Study authors looked at participants’ performance on memory and attention tests, and how eight modifiable risk factors for dementia impacted the results. Those included low education (less than a high school diploma), hearing loss, traumatic brain injury, alcohol or substance abuse, hypertension, smoking (currently or over past four years), diabetes, and depression.
Results show each factor contributed to a decrease in cognitive performance by as much as three years of aging. Each additional factor contributed to the same amount of decline. The effects of the risk factors also increased with age, as did the number of risk factors people had.
Researchers say they hope to look further into the differences between normal agers and “super-agers” – people who have identical cognitive performance to those several decades younger than them.
The study is published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia Diagnosis Assessment & Disease Monitoring.
South West News Service writer Jim Leffman contributed to this report.