New research from the University College of London (UCL) has found that weight management could play an important role in lowering the risk of developing dementia.
Adhering to a healthy and balanced eating plan, such as the Mediterranean diet, with extra virgin olive oil as a cornerstone, is one of the best ways to maintain an optimum weight level and mitigate the risks of developing the brain disease, one of the study’s lead authors said.
The fact that the lifestyle behaviours are modifiable implies that encouraging a healthy lifestyle may prevent or ameliorate underlying cerebrovascular and cardiovascular risk factors that could also present a dementia risk.– Dorina Cadar, senior research fellow, UCL
“In recent years adherence to a Mediterranean-style diet has received considerable interest in assessing its potential role in lowering the risk of heart disease, high cholesterol, obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cancer and cerebrovascular diseases, including dementia,” said Dorina Cadar, a senior research fellow specializing in dementia at UCL.
“We found that people who had a body mass index (BMI) in the obese range had a 31 percent higher risk of dementia than those with a BMI in the normal range, independent of their age, educational status, marital status, smoking, diabetes, hypertension and apolipoprotein E4 carrier status,” she added.
Apolipoprotein E is a protein that assists with the metabolism of fats in the body, with the E4 version being the most prominent known genetic risk factor for late-onset sporadic Alzheimer’s disease.
Cadar led the observational study, which began in 2002 and includes data from 6,582 people aged 50 years or older. Study participants were monitored biennially, and are still being observed.
The UCL research has been done in association with the English Longitudinal Study of Aging.
Dementia and Diet
“A well-balanced diet is an essential element of a healthy lifestyle that may be a facilitating factor in maintaining an optimal weight and successful, healthy aging for mind, body and soul,” Cadar said.
“The Mediterranean diet tends to avoid the red meat and dairy products that are the source of most saturated fats in the typical Western diet and to embrace modest alcohol consumption – mostly wine – generally during meals,” she added.
“I think it is essential to consider all the healthy lifestyle behaviors holistically. A healthy diet is not enough if exercise is missing from someone’s life,” Cadar said. “My hypothesis is that positive lifestyle behaviors such as non-smoking, being physically active, choosing healthier diets, drinking in moderation and lowering stress may protect our hearts and slow cognitive decline in later life.”
“The fact that the lifestyle behaviours are modifiable implies that encouraging a healthy lifestyle may prevent or ameliorate underlying cerebrovascular and cardiovascular risk factors that could also present a dementia risk,” she added.
Obesity and Dementia
Cadar said it is also possible that the association between obesity and dementia might be indirectly caused by other conditions, such as high blood pressure and anticholinergic treatments.
Anticholinergics block the action of acetylcholine, a substance that transmits messages in the nervous system.
However, some recent studies have found that obesity could be considered a protective health factor in older people. “Although it has become evident that excess body fat increases the risk of dementia through metabolic and vascular pathways, as presented in our study, we also need to acknowledge that there are some conflicting information from previous studies suggesting that the association between obesity and dementia remains unclear or that obesity may even be a protective factor for dementia among older individuals,” Cadar said.
She added that there could be a number of explanations for this, with more research across life stages needed. Cadar explained that when obesity is seen as protective in older people, it is generally because those diagnosed with dementia have lost weight prior to a diagnosis.
“Eating and drinking well are important for staying healthy at any age,” she said. “A healthy diet is likely to improve a person’s quality of life.”
Significantly, the UCL study found a gender difference in the risk of dementia associated with obesity. “Interestingly, women with abdominal obesity (a high waist circumference) had a 39 percent increased risk of dementia compared with women without abdominal obesity, but this particular association was not found among the men,” Cadar said.
The findings of the study were published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.
At the time, Andrew Steptoe, a co-author of the study, said dementia is one of the major health challenges of the 21st century that could threaten successful aging. He added their findings suggest rising obesity rates will exacerbate the problem.