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Lower Risk of Dementia when Older Adult Retains Sensory Capabilities

New research suggests that if a senior retains their senses of hearing, vision and touch, then they may have half the risk of developing dementia as their peers with marked sensory decline. The sense of smell is often used as an indicator of overall sensory capabilities with the ability to smell roses, turpentine, paint-thinner and lemons typically a good sign.

University of California San Francisco researchers tracked close to 1,800 participants in their seventies for a period of up to 10 years to see if their sensory functioning correlated with the development of dementia. At the time of enrollment, all participants were dementia-free, but 328 participants (18%) developed the condition over the course of the study.

Among those whose sensory levels ranked in the middle range, 141 of the 328 (19%) developed dementia. This compares with 83 in the good range (12%) and 104 (27%) in the poor range, according to the study.

Previous research has centered on the link between dementia and individual senses, but the UCSF researchers’ focus was on the additive effects of multiple impairments in sensory function, which emerging evidence shows are a stronger indicator of declining cognition.

The current study appears in Alzheimer’s and Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

“Sensory impairments could be due to underlying neurodegeneration or the same disease processes as those affecting cognition, such as stroke,” said first author Willa Brenowitz, PhD, of the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

“Alternatively, sensory impairments, particularly hearing and vision, may accelerate cognitive decline, either directly impacting cognition or indirectly by increasing social isolation, poor mobility and adverse mental health.”

While multiple impairments were key to the researchers work, the authors acknowledged that a keen sense of smell, or olfaction, has a stronger association against dementia than touch, hearing or vision. Participants whose smell declined by 10% had a 19% higher chance of dementia, versus a 1% to 3% increased risk for corresponding declines in vision, hearing and touch.

“The olfactory bulb, which is critical for smell, is affected fairly early on in the course of the disease,” said Brenowitz. “It’s thought that smell may be a preclinical indicator of dementia, while hearing and vision may have more of a role in promoting dementia.”

The 1,794 participants were recruited from a random sample of Medicare-eligible adults in the Health, Aging and Body Composition study. Cognitive testing was done at the beginning of the study and repeated every other year. Dementia was defined by testing that showed a significant drop from baseline scores, documented use of a dementia medication or hospitalization for dementia as a primary or secondary diagnosis.

Multisensory testing was done in the third-to-fifth year and included hearing (hearing aids were not allowed), contrast-sensitivity tests for vision (glasses were permitted), touch testing in which vibrations were measured in the big toe, and smell, involving identifying distinctive odors like paint-thinner, roses, lemons, onions and turpentine.

The researchers found that participants who remained dementia-free generally had higher cognition at enrollment and tended to have no sensory impairments. Those in the middle range tended to have multiple mild impairments or a single moderate-to-severe impairment. Participants at higher risk had multiple moderate-to-severe impairments.

“We found that with deteriorating multisensory functioning, the risk of cognitive decline increased in a dose-response manner,” said senior author Kristine Yaffe, MD, of the UCSF departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Epidemiology and Biostatistics, and Neurology.

“Even mild or moderate sensory impairments across multiple domains were associated with an increased risk of dementia, indicating that people with poor multisensory function are a high-risk population that could be targeted prior to dementia onset for intervention.”

The 780 participants with good multisensory function were more likely to be healthier than the 499 participants with poor multisensory function, suggesting that some lifestyle habits may play a role in reducing risks for dementia. The former group was more likely to have completed high school (85% versus 72.1%), had less diabetes (16.9% versus 27.9%) and were marginally less likely to have cardiovascular disease, high-blood pressure and stroke.

Source: University of California San Francisco

Lower Risk of Dementia when Older Adult Retains Sensory Capabilities

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2020). Lower Risk of Dementia when Older Adult Retains Sensory Capabilities. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 6, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/07/31/lower-risk-of-dementia-when-older-adult-retains-sensory-capabilities/158272.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 31 Jul 2020 (Originally: 31 Jul 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 31 Jul 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.