Here's something you don't often read: There's good news to report on Alzheimer's.
An analysis in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded the risk of getting Alzheimer's and other types of dementia may be declining. "There's a growing number of studies that seem to point to this optimistic conclusion," says Dr. Kenneth Langa, co-author of the article. "A 70-year-old today may have a bit lower risk of having Alzheimer's disease or dementia than a 70-year-old did 20 or 30 years ago." The article also noted that those who do get dementia may develop it later in life than past generations.
To be sure, the findings won't help the estimated 5.1 million Americans now suffering with Alzheimer's, and the disease will remain a dire health crisis that, in sheer numbers, will only get worse. Although the risk of Alzheimers among 70-year-olds might be going down, there's no doubt there will be more cases in the future because of the big growth in the number of older people, says Langa, a professor at the University of Michigan Medical School.
So, why is dementia risk declining? You may not connect Alzheimer's with high blood pressure and high cholesterol, but scientists are finding a link. "It's becoming clearer that cardiovascular risk increases your risk for both Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia," Langa says. Fortunately, Americans have been doing a better job controlling their blood pressure and lowering their cholesterol. "On average, people's blood pressure is lower now than it was 20 years ago," Langa says.
Additionally, the emphasis on education that permeated post-World War II America appears to be paying health dividends decades later. Langa says the more years of school a person completes appears to be "protective" against cognitive impairment later in life. You don't have to go back to school to reap these benefits today. Keeping mentally alert by reading or socializing with friends also appears to help lower your risk of dementia. "There does seem to be evidence for the old 'use-it-or-lose-it' hypothesis," Langa says.
And reading can be an intergenerational therapy. Reading a book to your young grandchildren can stimulate their brains and perhaps keep them healthy for decades. At the same time, you will be exercising your own brain, which may keep you mentally sharp and help decrease your risk for Alzheimer's.
If you don't have grandkids or they are grown, look for volunteer opportunities where you can read to school-age children. "It could be doing great things for both generations," Langa says.