Poor health, lack of education in youth raise dementia risk in later life

Risk factors for people who suffered significant cognitive decline and dementia were linked to either lack of education at an early age, or youth in their twenties who suffered from poor health.

Brain scan (illustrative) (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Brain scan (illustrative)
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Poor health and a lack of education in youth between their teenage years and their twenties can raise the risk of dementia and cognitive decline later on in life, CNN reported, citing three studies presented at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference 2020.
Risk factors for people who suffered significant cognitive decline and dementia were linked to either lack of education at an early age, or youth in their twenties who suffered from poor health that generally comes from unhealthy habits, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and being overweight. 
This overall group of risk factors, including education and health habits, are ones that low income people of color are more likely to be affected by, according to Maria Carrillo, the chief science officer for the Alzheimer's Association and who grew up Mexican-American. 
"We've known for quite a while that African Americans are two times more likely, and Latinos are one and a half times more likely than their White counterparts to have Alzheimer's or related dementia," she told CNN.
Dementia is a general term for the loss of memory and cognitive functions, and occurs when there's damage such as Alzheimer's disease or stroke damages the brain. Alzheimer's diseasse is the most common form of dementia may contribute up to 70% of dementia cases. 
Two of the three studies explored poor health in teens and youth in their twenties, such as cardiovascular conditions, being overweight and blood pressure, and the impact each of those  factors will have on the risk for dementia later on in life. 
One study analyzed the impact of body mass index (BMI) at the age of 20 on the risk for later-life dementia for over 5,000 men and women participating in two national longitudinal studies, according to CNN. The study ultimately found that youth who were overweight or obese in their twenties were more at risk for dementia later on in life than if they were overweight only later in on into their adult years. 
Women who are considered to have a high BMI of 25 or more at age 20 were at raised the risk for dementia by 1.8 times, and women who had a BMI of 30 or more raised the risk by 2.5 times compared to 20-year-old women with normal weight. However, no association between a heightened risk for dementia or cognitive decline and obesity in women in their midlife years was found. 
For men however, statistics were slightly different. While being obese at the age of 20 raised the risks of dementia late in life by 2.5 times, being obese in their midlife years still had an affect. Where in women having a higher BMI in their midlife years did not increase chances, in men their risk was simply lowered from 2.5 times in their early to twenties, to 1.5 if they were overweight in their 30s or older, and by 2 times  if they were considered obese. 
"It's very rare to find a study that follows individuals across early adolescence to middle age, and then as seniors," Carillo said. "So that's really why we wanted to highlight this. We also want to think about how we counteract this trend, because these are behaviors that are modifiable."
The second of the two studies focused particular on heart-related conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes in black  adolescents, a demographic which is typically more at risk for cardiovascular diseases, and the relative association with significant decline in cognitive conditions later on in life, according to CNN.
The long term study analyzed over in 700 black people in adolescence, young adulthood and midlife, and found that poor heart health does in fact increase chances of worse late-life cognition, all this regardless of age, gender and education. Instead of targeting risk factors in the black community in midlife, the study urged preventative interventions to begin in adolescence.
The third study focused on access to early education. The long term study consisted of a multi-ethnic cohort of 4,100 individuals followed over the course of 25 years. The study tracked variables such as school term length, student-teacher ratio, mandatory school enrollment age, minimum dropout age and student attendance.
Findings showed that men and women who attended school in states with low quality educational standards experienced a more rapid cognitive decline later in life than peers of the same age. In contrast, however, the study also found that going to higher-quality schools as a child was associated with better language and memory performance, and lower risk of dementia in older age, CNN reported.
This is because learning creates what can be described as a "cognitive reserve" that helps prevent brain deterioration for longer, according to Carillo. 
"Imagine you have a tree with amazing branches and complex leaf structures and a storm comes by and blows really hard," Carillo said. "It will lose less leaves and branches. It'll still stay full.
"And that's exactly what our brain is -- just this amazing architecture of nervous tissue and connections," she said. "The more you learn, the more connections you have and the more you can afford to lose a little and get trimmed, or pruned as we age."
Moreover, Carillo cited other factors that increase the risk for dementia and cognitive decline, such as poor nutrition, stress and experiencing violence and abuse. 
"We know that stress in particular is very closely connected to challenges with cognition and increases in the risk of dementia," Carillo said.
While some risk factors are harder for their parents to control in their children's lives such as the neighborhood where a child goes to school, or their socioeconomic status, there are still some things that parents can do to help their children. 
"What you can actually look at is making sure kids stay in school, making sure they finish high school," Carillo said, adding that parents can also try and help their children develop a strong foundation for a healthy relationship with learning.