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Living a healthy lifestyle may reduce risk of dementia

New research has shown that it is not inevitable that you will develop dementia based on your genetics. Changes in lifestyle can substantially reduce the risk.

It is our unique genetic makeup, combined with our lifestyle that determines the fate of our brains, and therefore our chances of aging gracefully over the course of a lifetime—or alternatively being gripped by a mist and forgetting names and faces instead.

Results of a study led by the University of Exeter in collaboration with researchers from the University of Michigan, the University of Oxford, and the University of South Australia has just been published.

"This research delivers a really important message that undermines a fatalistic view of dementia. Some people believe it's inevitable they'll develop dementia because of their genetics. However it appears that you may be able to substantially reduce your dementia risk by living a healthy lifestyle."

Joint lead author Dr David Llewellyn,

University of Exeter Medical School and the Alan Turing Institute

The research found that the risk of dementia was 32 per cent lower in people with a high genetic risk if they had followed a healthy lifestyle, compared to those who had an unhealthy lifestyle.

Participants with high genetic risk and an unfavourable lifestyle were almost three times more likely to develop dementia compared to those with a low genetic risk and favourable lifestyle.

The study

Data from 196,383 adults of European ancestry aged 60 and older was used over an eight year period. Participants were grouped into high, medium and low genetic risk for dementia based on factors identified in previous studies.

To assess lifestyle, researchers grouped participants into categories based on their self-reported diet, physical activity, smoking and alcohol consumption. Healthy behaviours were considered to be: no current smoking, regular physical activity, healthy diet and moderate alcohol consumption. The team found that living a healthy lifestyle was associated with a reduced dementia risk across all genetic risk groups.

"Genes Load the Gun. Lifestyle Pulls the Trigger"

We are all different

Our personal day-to-day choices are continually influencing what’s going on inside our brains. These effects are controlled not only by our lifestyle choices but also by the interplay of our behavior and genetic predisposition.

We are all different. Our brains are different, almost like fingerprints are different. Such differences are not only based on our unique genetic makeup, but are shaped, molded, and written upon by our back- grounds, education, and experiences. Add to that the many foods we’ve been exposed to, our cultural environments, and all the places we’ve been since we were born, of course it makes sense that no two brains could ever be alike.

Your genes are not your destiny

While it is true that one’s brain genetic blueprint is inherited from our parent, recent discoveries have led to the realisation that we are not hard-wired, but that we can influence our genes more dynamically. This new mode is called epigenetics, which recognises that our genes are fundamental in aspects of brain health, it is our ongoing lifestyle choices that can determine if those genes are turned on or off. As strange as this might sound, you actually have the power to activate or silence your genes.

Where you live, who you interact with, how you exercise, how you manage sleep and stress, and especially what you eat, cause changes inside your body that in turn impact your genes.

So what do you need to do?

The lifestyle you adopt continuously impacts your mind and body over time, thereby influencing your chances of retaining or not retaining optimal cognitive fitness. You've inherited your genes but you can make decisions about your lifestyle.

Take stock of your current lifestyle and choose not the one that provides instant gratification, but the one that will serve you sustained health and happiness.

Journal reference

Ilianna Lourida, Eilis Hannon, Thomas J. Littlejohns, Kenneth M. Langa, Elina Hyppönen, Elzbieta Kuzma, David J. Llewellyn. Association of Lifestyle and Genetic Risk With Incidence of Dementia. JAMA, 2019; DOI: 10.1001/jama.2019.9879

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