As we age, those minor physical ailments – including sore feet, poorly fitting dentures and skin irritations – may turn out to be not so minor after all.
"When a lot of small things go wrong, it can add up to an important risk," says Kenneth Rockwood, M.D., professor of medicine at Dalhousie University, Halifax, and an author of the study "Nontraditional Risk Factors Combine to Predict Alzheimer Disease and Dementia."
The 10-year study, launched in 1992, included more than 7,200 cognitively healthy 65-year-old Canadians who were asked questions regarding their overall health. While the questions included known risk factors for Alzheimer's, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, the thrust of the research was on 19 problems that seemingly have no connection with brain health – including vision and hearing, loose dentures, sinus congestion, arthritis, morning cough, and problems with the skin, stomach, kidneys or bowel.
While any healthy 65-year-old has an 18 percent chance of developing dementia in 10 years simply because they are aging, the study found that each health problem not traditionally associated with Alzheimer's increased that risk by 3.2 percent. The risk accelerated as more and more conditions were added, jumping to 40 percent among those in the study who reported as many as 12 conditions. Since age is a major risk factor for Alzheimer's, Richard Lipton, M.D., professor and vice chairman of neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, says the study in a sense is identifying people who "age badly" — developing one ailment after another so their biological age exceeds their chronological age.
While taking care of minor ailments is likely to improve a person's quality of life, Rockwood says, no one has yet proved that fixing one problem after another would necessarily reduce one's risk for Alzheimer's.
His advice? "Don't panic over one problem." As much as bad things can add up, so can the good, he said, citing studies showing that walking as little as 30 minutes a day, three days a week "dramatically attenuated" risk factors for dementia.
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Jennifer Anderson is a freelance health and science writer.