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Healthy living can negate genetic risk of dementia

According to new research, a healthy lifestyle may help counteract your genetic risk of dementia.

A study led by the University of Exeter in collaboration with researchers from the University of South Australia, the University of Michigan and the University of Oxford found that the risk of dementia was 32 per cent lower in people with a high genetic risk if they had followed a healthy lifestyle, compared to those with an unhealthy lifestyle.

Survey participants with high genetic risk and an unfavourable lifestyle were almost three times more likely to develop dementia, the researchers found, compared to those with a low genetic risk and favourable lifestyle.

The study analysed data from 196,383 adults of European ancestry aged 60 and older from UK Biobank. The researchers identified 1,769 cases of dementia over a follow-up period of eight years. The team grouped the participants into those with high, intermediate and low genetic risk for dementia.

To assess lifestyle, researchers “grouped participants into favourable, intermediate and unfavourable categories based on their self-reported diet, physical activity, smoking and alcohol consumption” and “considered no current smoking, regular physical activity, healthy diet and moderate alcohol consumption as healthy behaviours”.

They found that “living a healthy lifestyle was associated with a reduced dementia risk across all genetic risk groups”.

University of South Australia professor Elina Hyppönen (pictured), who was a senior collaborator advising on genetic and statistical aspects of the study, said: “Our results clearly show that in the context of dementia risk, it is possible to notably reduce the inherited risk by our own actions.”

“Indeed, I was delighted to see the lifestyle choices which appear to work against dementia are those which we know to also be beneficial for reducing the risks of other chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and cancer,” she said.

University of Exeter Medical School research fellow Dr Elżbieta Kuźma added: “This is the first study to analyse the extent to which you may offset your genetic risk of dementia by living a healthy lifestyle.”

“Our findings are exciting as they show we can take action to try to counteract our genetic risk for dementia. Sticking to a healthy lifestyle was associated with a reduced risk of dementia, regardless of the genetic risk.”

University of Exeter Medical School associate professor Dr David Llewellyn said: “This research delivers a really important message that undermines a fatalistic view of dementia. Some people believe it’s inevitable they’ll develop dementia because of their genetics. However, it appears that you may be able to substantially reduce your dementia risk by living a healthy lifestyle.”

“This study suggests that much of dementia is preventable,” Professor Hyppönen concluded.

“There is a saying, that ‘what is good for your heart is good for your brain’, and these results very much support that notion.

The findings were recently published in the academic journal JAMA.

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