Dementia is a syndrome (a group of related symptoms) associated with an ongoing decline of brain functioning and typically causes problems such as memory loss. It can be highly distressing for the person affected and their loved ones as dementia can be isolating, especially in its advanced form. Although the condition cannot be prevented, people can take steps to reduce the risk of developing the brain condition.
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A key aspect of reducing the risk is identifying it in the first place, and new research suggests taking a memory and thinking test as a child can indicate the risk of developing the condition as that person gets older. This is the key finding from thinking and memory tests done by eight-year olds, which suggests that the results may be indicative of how they will perform in the same assessments more than 60 years later. Crucially, the experts say the results could be used to slow down cognitive decline as people age. The study monitored 502 British people, all born during the same week in 1946, who took tests when they were eight years old and then again between the ages of 69 and 71.
One test involved looking at various arrangements of geometric shapes and identifying the missing piece from five options, while others evaluated skills like memory, attention, orientation and language.
Researchers found similarities between the tests completed in both childhood and old age, for instance, a participant whose cognitive performance was in the top 25 percent as a child, was likely to remain in the top 25 percent at age 70.
Commenting on the findings, study author, Jonathan M. Schott, of University College London said: “Finding these predictors is important because if we can understand what influences an individual’s cognitive performance in later life, we can determine which aspects might be modifiable by education or lifestyle changes like exercise, diet or sleep, which may in turn slow the development of cognitive decline.”
Participants had PET and MRI scans to detect amyloid-beta plaques – clumps of protein between nerve cells in the brain – which are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
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Those with amyloid-beta plaques had lower scores on cognitive testing, such as the missing pieces test, in which they scored eight percent lower on average.
“Our study found that small differences in thinking and memory associated with amyloid plaques in the brain are detectable in older adults even at an age when those who are destined to develop dementia are still likely to be many years away from having symptoms,” said Mr Schott.
He added: “It also found that childhood cognitive skills, education and socioeconomic status all independently influence cognitive performance at age 70.”
Underscoring the importance of education in determining mental acuteness in later life, participants who had completed a college degree scored around 16 percent higher than those who had left school before the age of 16.
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Follow-ups will be carried out on all participants and further studies will be carried out to more accurately predict how a person’s thinking and memory will change as they age.
How to reduce the risk
According to Alzheimer’s UK, risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure and stroke, are also risk factors for dementia, so what is good for your heart is good for your brain.
As the charity explained: “Looking after your health, cutting out smoking and being physically active on a regular basis will help lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.”
The health body continued: “It’s likely you’ll be lowering your risk of dementia too, particularly vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”
While it’s never too late to make positive changes, keeping your heart healthy in your forties and fifties seems to be particularly important for helping to lower your risk of dementia, it added.
Common early warning sign
As the NHS explains, different types of dementia can affect people differently, and everyone will experience symptoms in their own way.
However, there are some common early symptoms that may appear some time before a diagnosis of dementia, such as:
- Memory loss
- Difficulty concentrating
- Finding it hard to carry out familiar daily tasks, such as getting confused over the correct change when shopping
- Struggling to follow a conversation or find the right word
- Being confused about time and place
- Mood changes
“You might not notice these symptoms if you have them, and family and friends may not notice or take them seriously for some time,” explained the health site.
If you do spot the early warning signs, it’s important to talk to your GP sooner rather than later to help slow down symptoms and maintain quality of life, it says.
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