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Posted: April 22, 2008

Bad Habits Can Trigger Alzheimer's, Also Bring on Disease Sooner

Life’s lessons from bad habits can be harsh, but among the most harsh must be revelations that heavy drinking, smoking, junk food and resulting high cholesterol can lead to Alzheimer’s disease and in some cases bring it on much sooner than otherwise.

Separate research presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting found that heavy drinkers and smokers develop Alzheimer’s up to eight years sooner than those with healthy lifestyles, while people who develop high cholesterol from a junk food diet in middle age one and a half times more likely to develop Alzheimer's.

In one of the studies, a team examined 938 Alzheimer's patients age 60 and older. The researchers interviewed family members about the patients’ drinking and smoking history, and found that heavy drinkers developed Alzheimer’s nearly five years earlier on average than non-heavy drinkers. Heavy drinking was defined in the study as consuming more than two alcoholic drinks a day.

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Meanwhile, those who smoked at least 20 cigarettes a day developed the disease 2.3 years sooner than patients who smoked less or did not smoke.

Also, study participants with a particular mutant form of the gene ApoE showed symptoms of Alzheimer’s three years earlier than those without the gene variant.

When these three risk factors were combined, research scientists found that Alzheimer’s had a considerably earlier onset, with patients with all three developing Alzheimer’s 8.5 years sooner than those with none of the three.

There were 17 patients in the study with all three risk factors. They began to experience Alzheimer’s at an average age of 68.5 years, whereas 374 participants who had none of the risk factors developed Alzheimer’s at an average age of 77.

"These results are significant because it’s possible that if we can reduce or eliminate heavy smoking and drinking, we could substantially delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease for people and reduce the number of people who have Alzheimer’s at any point in time," said Dr. Ranjan Duara, of the Wien Centre for Alzheimer’s Disease at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, Florida.

Duara went on:

"It has been projected that a delay in the onset of the disease by five years would lead to a nearly 50% reduction in the total number of Alzheimer’s cases.

"In this study, we found that the combination of heavy drinking and heavy smoking reduced the age of onset of Alzheimer’s disease by six to seven years, making these two factors among the most important preventable risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease."

In the second study presented to the nation’s assembled neurologists, a team of Finnish and US scientists announced results linking high cholesterol and Alzheimer’s.

They reported results showing that people with high cholesterol in their early 40s were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those with low cholesterol. The study involved 9,752 men and women in northern California who underwent health checks between 1964 and 1973 when they were between the ages of 40 and 45. Of these, 504 went on to develop Alzheimer’s and 162 were diagnosed with vascular dementia.

In fact, the researchers said participants who had total cholesterol levels between 249 and 500 milligrams were one and a half times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those with cholesterol levels of less than 198 milligrams. Having a cholesterol level of 221 to 248 milligrams raised the risk of Alzheimer’s more than 1.25 times, they said.

"High mid-life cholesterol increased the risk of Alzheimer's disease regardless of diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking and late-life stroke," said Dr. Alina Solomon, from the University of Kuopio in Finland, who led the research. "Our findings show it would be best for both physicians and patients to attack high cholesterol levels in their 40s to reduce the risk of dementia."

There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, which is estimated to afflict more than 5 million Americans.

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