Reducing Frailty May Lower Dementia Risk, Study Finds

As we age, staying fit and making healthy choices can make a world of difference to our wellbeing. That includes our physical and cognitive wellbeing. A new study reinforces this, finding that taking steps to safeguard our health could guard against frailty, which, in turn, could lower dementia risk.

Researchers from Dalhousie University and Nova Scotia Health in Canada teamed up with researchers from the University of Exeter in the UK to examine the link between frailty and dementia risk. Using data from nearly 200,000 seniors, they determined that frailty was a strong predictor of dementia, even among people who already had a high genetic risk of developing the disease. The study, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, suggests that making healthy choices to combat frailty may be key in reducing dementia risk.

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Dr. David Ward, lead author and researcher from the Division of Geriatric Medicine at Dalhousie, explains, “We’re seeing increasing evidence that taking meaningful action during life can significantly reduce dementia risk. Our research is a major step forward in understanding how reducing frailty could help to dramatically improve a person’s chances of avoiding dementia, regardless of their genetic predisposition to the condition. This is exciting because we believe that some of the underlying causes of frailty are in themselves preventable. In our study, this looked to be possible partly through engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviors.”

To investigate frailty and its impact on dementia risk, the researchers used data from more than 196,000 adults aged 60 and older in the UK Biobank. After determining a participants’ genetic risk, the team used a previously-developed score for frailty, which includes age-related symptoms, signs, disabilities, and diseases. They then looked at a score on healthy lifestyle behaviors.

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Over a 10-year period, 1,762 participants were diagnosed with dementia. Those who were tended to have a higher degree of frailty before diagnosis. The researchers say frailty also played a big role in those who had a strong genetic risk for the disease. Among healthy participants, the risk played out as expected, but among those who were the most frail, dementia risk was high regardless of genes.

Further, among those with the highest genetic risk of dementia, those who were healthy had the lowest incidence of the disease. Those with the highest degree of frailty had the highest incidence. Those with both high genetic risk and high frailty were six times more likely to develop dementia than participants who had neither risk factor.

Additionally, after controlling for genetics, those with a high degree of frailty were 2.5 times more likely to develop dementia than those with a low degree of frailty.

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The team noted that those who partook in a higher number of healthy lifestyle behaviors were less apt to develop the disease, partly because they were not frail.

Dr. Janice Ranson, co-author and researcher from the University of Exeter Medical School, says, “These findings have extremely positive implications, showing it’s not the case that dementia is inevitable, even if you’re at a genetic high risk. We can take meaningful action to reduce our risk; tackling frailty could be an effective strategy to maintaining brain health, as well as helping people stay mobile and independent for longer in later life.”

To read the study article, you can find it here.

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