March 25, 2022
Can having certain medical conditions affect your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease up to 15 years later? It might, according to a large new analysis that looked at the health records of nearly 80,000 men and women living in Britain or France.
For the study, researchers focused on 123 health conditions that earlier research suggested might play a role in dementia risk. They identified 10 that were tied to an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Some of these conditions, like memory loss, are well-recognized risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. Others, like constipation, are not typically thought of as dementia risk factors.
Among the health conditions tied to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s up to 15 years later were:
- Depression, anxiety and high levels of stress were all tied to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, a finding confirmed in earlier research. Studies have shown, for example, that people with depression or anxiety typically go on to develop Alzheimer’s two to three years earlier than their peers who do not have these mental health issues. Researchers and doctors believe that Alzheimer’s is a long process that begins many years, and possibly decades, before the actual onset of memory loss, perhaps showing up as symptoms of depression or anxiety in the early stages of the disease. Alternatively, it is also possible that depression and anxiety — and the chronic distress these conditions bring — may in some way weaken the brain, making it more vulnerable to the ravages of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Furthermore, depression and anxiety tend to reduce levels of activity and enthusiasm in general, often causing people to be less actively engaged in life and more socially isolated, which can also increase the risk of dementia.
- Hearing loss. Numerous studies have shown that hearing loss is tied to an increased risk of dementia. Loss of hearing may impair the brain by keeping people socially isolated and less engaged (TV, music, reading, etc.), and lack of social and other stimulation has been tied to cognitive decline. If you are having hearing trouble, make sure to get a hearing aid, and protect the ears from loud noises that can cause permanent damage.
- Constipation. In the study, constipation was tied to an increased Alzheimer’s risk up to seven years before diagnosis, though scientists aren’t sure why. Constipation has been linked to depression, which is also associated with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Constipation can also be a symptom of other neurologic ailments, such as Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia. In addition, a growing body of research shows that the health of the gut, including low grade inflammation and changes in the body’s neurotransmitter systems, is closely tied to the health of the brain.
- Cervical spondylarthritis, or arthritis of the upper spine that causes stiffness and discomfort in the neck, was tied to an increased Alzheimer’s risk. The researchers speculate that neck pain may lead to diminished physical activity, which may be bad for brain health. The authors speculate that spinal problems may also be related to immune problems and inflammation, and inflammation has increasingly tied to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. It is also possible that spinal problems may interfere with blood flow or the flow of spinal fluids to and from the brain.
- Unexpected weight loss. Earlier studies have shown that weight loss may precede the onset of Alzheimer’s by 10 to 20 years, suggesting that the disease may have a long latency period during which subtle changes like weight loss or minor memory problems may occur. Seniors who quickly shed pounds are at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s, some studies suggest, and dementia may be particularly likely in those who were overweight to begin with and then lose weight.
Having any of these conditions does not mean that you will eventually develop Alzheimer’s. Rather, these conditions were tied to an increased risk of developing the disease.
Identifying these problems and treating them may not only help you live a better life, it may even help to prevent or delay the onset of dementia years later. The findings were published in the journal The Lancet Digital Health.
By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.
Source: Thomas Nedelec, Baptiste Couvy-Duchesne, Fleur Monnet, et al: “Identifying Health Conditions Associated with Alzheimer’s Disease up to 15 Years Before Diagnosis: An Agnostic Study of French and British Health Records.” The Lancet Digital Health, March 2022.