Dementia is the leading cause of dependence and disability in the elderly population worldwide. Currently there is no effective medication for dementia treatment; therefore, identifying life-related risk factors, including some that are modifiable, may provide important strategies for reducing risk of dementia.
Now, a new study coauthored by a Boston University School of Health researcher has found that age, marital status, body mass index, and amount of sleep can all have an impact on a person’s risk for dementia.
“This study is the first step in applying machine-learning approaches to identifying new combinations of factors that are linked to increased risk of dementia later in life,” says senior author Rhoda Au, professor of epidemiology and of anatomy and neurobiology at BU School of Medicine. “By focusing on modifiable risk factors, we are hoping to identify disease risk factors that are amenable to change, enabling the possibility of preventing dementia.”
Researchers analyzed data from the Framingham Heart Study to identify new combinations of risk factors that are linked to increased risk of dementia in later life. They examined demographic and lifestyle data collected from 1979 until 1983 and then determined who was subsequently diagnosed with dementia.
The researchers found that greater age was strongly associated with dementia, as was a marital status of “widowed,” lower BMI, and having experienced less sleep at midlife.
According to the researchers, what makes their approach unique is the focus on information that is readily available to any primary care physician and doesn’t require specialized training or expensive testing, as well as using machine learning to help identify these factors.
“We wanted to identify information that any physician or even nonphysician has easy access to in determining potential increased future risk for dementia,” says Au. “Most dementia screening tools require specialized training or testing, but the frontline for screening are primary care physicians or family members.”
The researchers believe there are potential downstream implications for this study. “Demographic and lifestyle factors that are noninvasive and inexpensive to implement can be assessed in midlife and used to potentially modify the risk of dementia in late adulthood,” they wrote.
Funding was provided by the Milstein Medical Asian American Partnership Foundation Irma & Paul Milstein Program for Senior Health Fellowship; Framingham Heart Study’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the National Institute on Aging; and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.