Nearly half of Americans in midlife think they’re likely to develop dementia, but only 5 percent have actually talked with a doctor about what they could do to reduce their risk, according to new research published in the journal JAMA Neurology.
Lead author Donovan Maust, M.D., M.S., from the University of Michigan notes that even among the oldest Americans, the risk of dementia is actually lower than one in three people over age 85.
Risk starts rising around age 65, and is higher among people of Latino or African-American heritage. When people are in their 50s and early 60s, Maust says, they still have time to bring down their future dementia risk.
And while pharmaceutical companies continue to work on potential dementia-preventing medications, the researchers worry that the public’s over-estimation of their dementia risk may lead to costly over-use of such drugs.
The findings suggest a need for better counseling for middle-aged Americans about the steps they can take to keep their brains healthy as they age.
“There is growing evidence that adults in mid-life can take steps to lower their risk of dementia, including increasing physical activity and controlling health conditions like hypertension and diabetes,” says Maust. “Unfortunately, our findings suggest that people may not be aware of this and are not asking their doctor.”
For the study, the researchers analyzed data from the National Poll on Healthy Aging, a nationally representative survey of 1,019 adults between the ages of 50 and 64. The new paper delves deeper into the poll data than the report issued earlier this year.
The findings show that the level of worry about dementia among some groups of middle-aged adults may not be in line with their risk compared to others. For example, studies suggest that people of Latino heritage are about 50% more likely to develop dementia than non-Latino whites, and African-Americans are about twice as likely as non-Latino whites.
However, in the poll, those of African-American or Latino backgrounds did not consider themselves more likely to develop dementia than white participants. In fact, African-American respondents felt they were significantly less likely to develop dementia than other groups.
Similarly, middle-aged people with worse physical health because of conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease are more likely to develop dementia than those in good health. However, poll respondents who reported their physical health as just fair or poor did not judge their risk of dementia to be higher than their healthier peers.
Around a third of respondents were engaging in practices they believed would help: 32% of those polled said they were taking fish oil or omega-3 fatty acid supplements, and 39% said they took other supplements for brain health. More than half said they were doing crossword puzzles or other brain games in hopes of keeping their minds “sharp.”
In general, increasing physical activity, smoking cessation, and managing chronic medical conditions such as diabetes or hypertension, are proven ways to reduce the risk of dementia, says Maust.
He adds that physicians and public health authorities should communicate to middle-aged adults that taking these steps are the most evidence-based strategies to help preserve brain function into old age, as well as reducing the risk of everything from heart attacks and strokes to lung disease, cancer and loss of vision and mobility.