The research was reported at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC) 2020 and found heart health, body mass index (BMI), and quality of education may affect a person's brain health and help detect dementia early on. They also found Black people are disproportionately affected by these factors and therefore twice as likely to develop dementia as white people.
"Research like this is important in addressing health inequities and providing resources that could make a positive impact on a person's life," says Maria Carrillo, Ph.D., chief science officer for the Alzheimer's Association. Here's how researchers determined each measurable factor:
Using data from the Study of Healthy Aging in African Americans (STAR), researchers found adolescents, young adults, and middle-aged men and women with two or more heart health risk factors were more likely to experience cognitive decline later in life.
To test cognition, researchers performed in-person memory and executive functioning tests. The results remained consistent regardless of age, gender, and years since the risk factors were measured.
According to the report, African Americans are at a higher risk for cardiovascular diseases than other racial and ethnic groups. Addressing these health disparities early in adolescence may help promote heart and brain health.
Body mass index
After analyzing two different studies with more than 5,000 adults, those with a high BMI in early adulthood (ages 20 to 49) were more likely to develop dementia later in life. Women with a high BMI were almost twice as likely, and men with a high BMI were two and a half times more likely to develop dementia than adults with a normal BMI.
Higher BMI in midlife was not associated with an increased dementia risk.
Quality of education
To understand how the quality of education plays a role in Alzheimer's and dementia, researchers analyzed a group of more than 2,400 Black and white men and women, 65 and older, who went to elementary school in the U.S.
To study the quality of education, researchers looked at mandatory school enrollment age, minimum dropout age, school term length, student-to-teacher ratio, and attendance. Participants who received a lower quality of education experienced a greater loss of memory and language skills when they were older. Both Black women and men and white women with higher quality educations were less likely to develop dementia.
The scientists suspect people who receive better education early on may be more likely to continue education later in life.
"By identifying, verifying, and acting to counter those Alzheimer's risk factors that we can change, we may reduce new cases and eventually the total number of people with Alzheimer's and other dementia," Carrillo says.
Educating kids on healthy lifestyle habits, like staying physically active and eating diets rich in nutrients, may help reduce the risk of heart disease, high BMI and obesity, and better support brain health. Educational policies may improve the social and educational factors that lead to cognitive decline later in life.
"These new reports from AAIC 2020 show that it's never too early, or too late, to take action to protect your memory and thinking abilities," Carrillo said.