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Dementia Rates Decline Sharply

Category: Health and Wellness Issues

By Liz Szabo at Kaiser Health News. (Reprinted with permission)

Nov. 21, 2016 — A new study finds that the prevalence of dementia has fallen sharply in recent years, most likely as a result of Americans’ rising educational levels and better heart health, which are both closely related to brain health.

Dementia rates in people over age 65 fell from 11.6 percent in 2000 to 8.8 percent in 2012, a decline of 24 percent, according to a study of more than 21,000 people across the country published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“It’s definitely good news,” said Dr. Kenneth Langa, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan and a coauthor of the new study. “Even without a cure for Alzheimer’s disease or a new medication, there are things that we can do socially and medically and behaviorally that can significantly reduce the risk.”
This KHN story also ran in USA Today. It can be republished for free (details).

The decline in dementia rates translates to about one million fewer Americans suffering from the condition, said John Haaga, director of behavioral and social research at the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health, which funded the new study.

Dementia is a general term for a loss of memory or other mental abilities that’s severe enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease, which is believed to be caused by a buildup of plaques and tangles in the brain, is the most common type of dementia, find the early signs of Alzheimer here, Vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia and occurs after a stroke.

The new research confirms the results of several other studies that also have found steady declines in dementia rates in the United States and Europe. The new research provides some of the strongest evidence yet for a decline in dementia rates because of its broad scope and diverse ranges of incomes and ethnic groups, Haaga said. The average age of participants in the study, called the Health and Retirement Study, was 75.

The study, which began in 1992, focuses on people over age 50, collecting data every two years. Researchers conduct detailed interviews with participants about their health, income, cognitive ability and life circumstances. The interviews also include physical tests, body measurements and blood and saliva samples.

While advocates for people with dementia welcomed the news, they noted that Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of memory loss remain a serious burden for the nation and the world. Up to five million Americans today suffer from dementia, a number that is expected to triple by 2050, as people live longer and the elderly population increases.

The number of Americans over age 65 is expected to nearly double by 2050, reaching 84 million, according to the U.S. Census. So even if the percentage of elderly people who develop dementia is smaller than previously estimated, the total number of Americans suffering from the condition will continue to increase, said Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach, medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association.

“Alzheimer’s is going to remain the public health crisis of our time, even with modestly reduced rates,” Fargo said.

Although researchers can’t definitively explain why dementia rates are decreasing, Langa said doctors may be doing a better job controlling high blood pressure and diabetes, which can both boost the risk of age-related memory problems. High blood pressure and diabetes both increase the risk of strokes, which kill brain cells, increasing the risk of vascular dementia.

“We’ve been saying now for several years that what’s good for your heart is good for your head,” Fargo said. “There are several things you can do to reduce your risk for dementia.”

Authors of the study found that senior citizens today are better educated than even half a generation ago. The population studied in 2012 stayed in school 13 years, while the seniors studied in 2000 had about 12 years of education, according to the study.

That’s significant, because many studies have found a strong link between higher educational levels and lower risk of disease, including dementia, Lang said. The reasons are likely to be complex. People with more education tend to earn more money and have better access to health care. They’re less likely to smoke, more likely to exercise and less likely to be overweight. People with more education also may live in safer neighborhoods and have less stress.

People who are better educated may have more intellectually stimulating jobs and hobbies that help exercise their brains, Lang said.

It’s also possible that people with more education can better compensate for memory problems as they age, finding ways to work around their impairments, according to an accompanying editorial by Ozioma Okonkwo and Dr. Sanjay Asthana of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Yet Americans shouldn’t expect dementia rates to continue falling indefinitely, Haaga said.

Although educational levels increased sharply after the World War II, those gains have leveled off, Haaga said. People in their 20s today are no more likely to have graduated from college compared to people in their 60s.

“We have widening inequality in health outcomes in the U.S.,” Haaga said. “For people without much education, we’ve had very little improvement in health. The benefits really have gone to those with better educations.”

KHN’s coverage related to aging & improving care of older adults is supported by The John A. Hartford Foundation, and coverage of end-of-life and serious illness issues is supported by The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Comments? Here at Topretirements we find this to be really good news. If you care to Comment please do so in the section below.

Posted by Admin on November 26th, 2016


  1. Please read the following scientific study on dementia and the use of Benadryl (or such type) medications. The results are that roughly 50% of all people using such medications for 10 years or longer developed dementia! The effects are not always reversible, even when the medication is discontinued! This is huge! Our new (for us) doctor recently informed my husband and me about this, and took us off a generic version of Benadryl (we were using only one per day as a sleep aid) for this reason. We have definitely experienced the memory loss described in the study. Hopefully, it will reverse now that we are no longer using it!

    Please read this article:

    Included in the article is the study itself. If you’re not familiar with research studies, you can just read the results. By the way, the comments didn’t exist when i read this and i don’t have time to read them before posting this, but i believe this is so important that i will post now and take flak later. There certainly will be dispute on the conclusions of this article. Still, well worth reading!

    by ella — November 27, 2016

  2. Sorry all. Upon returning to the article i mentioned in the above post, i realize the comments were there when i originally read the article about a month ago. I, apparently, didn’t read them then. Doesn’t change my stance, however. I am no longer using Benadryl and have no plans to resume its use. Dementia is, for me, the #1 scariest thing about aging. I choose to not tempt fate.

    by ella — November 27, 2016

  3. I agree with Ella. Also, be sure to stay hydrated. Lack of adequate hydration can produce dementia like symptoms. Older people rarely drink enough water–very simple remedy. Medications can very much cause dementia as well as some of the foods we eat that elevate glucose levels in the blood stream. I am a former nurse and I rarely take any medication–the side effects are toxic and I really have to weigh the side effects against any possible benefits. Both of my grandmothers lived to nearly 100 years of age–one was only five months from reaching that goal. Both said it was because they did not take any medications–none.

    by Jennifer — November 28, 2016

  4. Jennifer’s note about dementia like symptoms was helpful. There’s obviously a big difference between dementia like symptoms, which may have a cause that can be treated, vs. the actual disease of dementia. I also agree with Ella that dementia is the #1 scariest thing about aging for me too!

    While the reported results of the study are interesting, we really don’t know whether the results are due to a reduction in the disease, or changes in diagnoses and treatment of those individuals who had treatable dementia symptoms. The article raises a lot of questions about how the study was conducted.

    I tend to be very cynical about any claims that dementia is avoidable by exercise, Vitamin E, not using aluminum pans (remember that one?), statins, fish oil, etc. I’ve been monitoring every single article and claim for decades, and ultimately have been disappointed when they prove to be myth, unsupported or based on bad science (including studies based on miniscule sampling), non-repeatable research results, marketing ploys for a particular product to try to take advantage of fear, etc. I now have kids working in health care, including a PharmD. They are all closely monitoring medical reporting and drug research. We do the Alzheimer walks, wear purple, and donate as aggressively as possible to research efforts. Why? My spouse, who was physically fit and active, with no history of the disease in his large family, was diagnosed out of the blue with the disease about 20 years ago, when he was in his early 50s. The disease ultimately killed him in his late 60s (yes, it was the cause of death). Anyone who has any experience with this disease knows its horrors. In or case, our kids grew up with the disease and we fought it as a family for years — and we were young and healthy while caregiving. My sympathies and prayers are extended to family members in their 60s, 70s and 80s who find themselves struggling with caregiving in retirement.

    I’d like to believe that doing word games and puzzles, eating well and staying physically fit can avoid Alzheimers, instead of making someone a healthier Alzheimers’ patient. Maybe the study indicates that is happening. We can hope.

    by Kate — November 29, 2016

  5. Hello Kate:

    I was at home on Wednesday, Nov 23 and Dianne Rhemon NPR had a guest on her program who talked about dementia and alzheimers. Both of his parents suffered from the diseases, he was a researcher and he said that while the mind games may be stimulating, he does not delude himself into thinking it could save him from getting either of the above. The good news is that there is a 24% reduction in Alzheimers and dementia which is being researched. A cure cannot come soon enough. We are exposed to many more toxins in our food and the environment than our grandparents and parents ever were. On top of that the pharmaceuticals with their side effects and interactions can magnify the problem.
    Lots to think about here.

    by Jennifer — November 29, 2016

  6. Jennifer and Kate,
    Thanks for your comments. I, too, don’t know for sure if Benadryl does cause or contribute to dementia. However, just as my mother quit smoking, cold turkey, after 50 years of the habit upon hearing that she had damaged the major artery to her heart; i quit using Benadryl as a sleep aid upon my doctor urging me to and checking the internet for confirmation or denial. Surprisingly, i’m sleeping just fine other than waking up early. (I truly am surprised about this as i didn’t think i could sleep without the medication.)
    As i mentioned before, i have seen memory losses in both my husband and myself. This is certainly a small price to pay for the possible return of, or at least slow down of the demise of our cognitive functions. Here’s hoping! And i, too, offer my deepest heartfelt concern to those who have walked this path.

    by ella — November 29, 2016

  7. Interesting comments about Benedryl. I rarely used it but when I do have sinus congestion or post nasal drip I’ve switched to the children’s version. Even one adult dose gives me very strange nightmares.

    While the comments about education level and mental stimulation from jobs, living in safer areas reducing stress, give hope, I think my neighbor would find little consolation in that. Her husband is a retired high level judge with stimulating interests who suffers from Alzheimer’s and has declined this past year. We can just try to eat healthy, exercise our bodies and brains and pray.

    by Marjie — November 30, 2016

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