What Causes Dementia? New Research Findings Point to Unexpected Factors

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Dementia is a slow-progressing, mysterious disease that has puzzled physicians, geriatricians, and neurologists for decades.

Dementia is a slow-progressing, mysterious disease that has puzzled physicians, geriatricians, and neurologists for decades.

What starts as mild confusion soon turns in to a cascade of impaired function, including symptoms such as memory loss, wandering, and the loss of movement and muscle control in later stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.

However, today modern technology and improved research methods allow scientists to peer into the brain and body like never before, uncovering mechanisms that contribute to risk for developing dementia.

The latest findings on brain health points to several new factors that may influence a senior’s risk of developing dementia:

1. Anemia – A decade long study recently published in Neurology found that those with anemia have a 40%-60% higher risk of developing dementia as compared to those who were not anemic. Anemia, a blood disorder characterized by low levels of red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body, affects nearly one-quarter of older adults. Since people with anemia lack sufficient healthy red blood cells, researchers speculate that less oxygen travels to the brain, resulting in cognitive decline. Anemia is caused by iron deficiency and typically results from blood loss. It’s important to watch for conditions such as blood in stool which may contribute to anemia and to consume iron-rich foods such as egg yolks, shellfish, or dark leafy veggies (kale, spinach). 

2. Dental health – Several studies have linked Alzheimer’s Disease and poor oral health.  Most recently scientists have pointed to porphyromonas gingivalis– the bacteria associated with chronic periodontal disease– as a contributor to developing dementia. The bacteria, researchers say, enters the bloodstream, triggering an immune response that produces excess chemicals that disrupts brain activity and kill neurons. These findings lend additional support to the link between gum disease and dementia.  In 2010, a group of researchers from NYU found that gum inflammation might contribute to brain inflammation, neurodegeneration, and Alzheimer’s disease.

3. Depression – Depressed older adults are more than twice as likely to develop vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, 36 of every 50 seniors with late-life depression may go on to develop vascular dementia, while 31 in 50 may develop Alzheimer’s. A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry this May states that while late-life depression does not cause dementia, it contributes to the disease. Cortisol, a hormone produced in high levels in those who are depressed, may damage the part of the brain responsible for short-term memory and learning (the hippocampus)

For now, research on these new causes of dementia is young and not thoroughly explored. The causal links between depression, oral health, and anemia to dementia have yet to be conclusively demonstrated, and further research is required to illuminate the complexities of these connections but the implications for older adults are clear: early treatment and prevention are key.

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