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Scientists Discover Surprising Possible Predictor of Dementia

A study published a potential risk factor.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Dementia is a serious condition that is increasingly common. Millions of Americans are dealing with the progressive brain disorder. The #1 risk factor for dementia is getting older, and cases of dementia are expected to rise dramatically in the next few decades as the population ages. So scientists are highly interested in determining if the disease can be predicted and even prevented. One study recently found a surprising potential predictor of dementia. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.

1

What Is Dementia?

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Dementia is an umbrella term for a group of brain disorders that involve changes to memory, thinking, personality, and judgment. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting about 6.2 million Americans. Dementia ultimately interferes with a person's ability to function and live independently. Although some treatments exist, there is currently no cure. 

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Study Finds Surprising Possible Predictor

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In a study recently published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, researchers examined the links between mental health and dementia and found a possible predictor. Looking at health data from a large group of New Zealanders who were followed for more than 30 years, the scientists found that people who had been hospitalized for a mental health issue had a 3.5 times greater risk of developing dementia than those who hadn't. 

What's more, a person's mental health was a better predictor of whether they would develop dementia than their physical health. The results held for both men and women, for both early and late-onset dementia, and after adjusting for other risk factors including pre-existing illnesses and socioeconomic level.

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Study Suggests Dementia Prevention Possible

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"Dementia peaks late in life and is not currently curable, whereas mental health disorders peak in adolescence and young adulthood and are treatable," said study author Barry J. Milne, PhD. "If the same people who have mental disorders when young tend to then develop dementia years later, that would mean that mental health treatments might be an opportunity to prevent or delay dementia."

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How the Study Was Conducted

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In the study, researchers looked at 1.7 million New Zealanders, born between 1928 and 1967, who were followed for 30 years, from 1988 to 2018.

The scientists looked for associations between hospitalizations for mental health issues and a later diagnosis of dementia. All mental health disorders and all types of dementia, such as Alzheimer's, were included. "We were surprised that mental health was a stronger predictor of dementia than physical health, and a little surprised how consistent the associations were across mental health disorders," said Milne.

But the scientist noted that developing a mental health disorder is not a guarantee of future dementia. "Most people with mental health problems will not develop dementia," said Milne. "Mental health problems are not a 'life sentence' that always result in dementia."

And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor whose health and lifestyle content has also been published on Beachbody and Openfit. A contributing writer for Eat This, Not That!, he has also been published in New York, Architectural Digest, Interview, and many others. Read more about Michael