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12/1/14 - Longer life brings greater risk of dementia

Baby Boomers, like everyone else, know that avoiding tobacco use, watching their weight, and exercising, contribute to longer life. However, researchers recently announced findings that show there may be a downside to longer life.

At the Gerontological Society of America annual science meeting, held in November in Washington DC, people who study aging share their research results, including studies on the potential implications of the large number of Baby Boomers now in their 50s and late 60s.

In gerontological circles, it’s well established that life expectancy is linked to higher incomes, more years of education, and access to medical care, as well as good health habits.

 But at this year’s conference, Dr. Carol Jagger of Newcastle University in England summarized studies in England, Australia, and the Southern United States that all showed the same unexpected results S(See “Education Differences in Life Expectancy with Cognitive Impairment ).

"Education will have its costs,” says Jagger. “That cost is that -- you will live longer -- but as you live longer, some things will happen that are somewhat negative. So it's a kind of interesting twist on what we usually think."

The risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, increases with age. About 14% of people age 71 and up have cognitive impairment, compared to 37 percent of people age 90 and up.

Dr. Sarah Laditka, of the University of North Carolina, says her team’s research shows longer life expectancy gave people more time to develop memory or judgment problems (See “More Education May Limit Disability and Extend Life For People With Cognitive Impairment.")

"For people with cognitive impairment,” says Laditka, “those with more education lived substantially and significantly longer than those with less education." 

Laditka says life expectancy has increased. But she says the age of onset of cognitive impairment has not changed.

 "People overall with cognitive impairment lived much longer, had much longer life expectancy than those without cognitive impairment, says Laditka, “which although may not seem intuitive, was actually not surprising because as dementia increases, you have to be, in many instances,  you have to be older to have dementia."

The Alzheimer’s Association predicts the number of people age 65 and up with Alzheimer’s will almost double in Alaska by 2050. Nationwide, the cost of caring for people with dementia is an estimated 1.2 trillion dollars. Jagger says scientists, as much as they’d like to, have not yet found a way to cut those costs through disease prevention.

"Things will not be perhaps as cheap as we once thought they were or were going to be when we improved everybody's health by making them undertake prevention and higher education,” says Jagger.

However, studies released at the Alzheimer’s Association annual meeting in July show the incidence of dementia in England, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United States has dropped since the 1970s and even just since 2004 in Germany. Those studies indicate more years of education, and control of blood pressure and cholesterol, may be protective against dementia. (See "Dementia Rate Drops Sharply, as Forecast" and "Alzheimer's Rate Falling in United States".)

Joaqlin Estus wrote this article with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, sponsored by AARP.