A new study of 21,000 people has found that the dementia rates in those over the age of 65 declined 24%, falling from 11.6% in 2000 to 8.8% in 2012.
The University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study was funded by the National Institute on Aging, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. It studied 21,000 people across the country beginning in 1992. The average age of the study participants was 75.
Researchers collected data every two years from study participants, interviewing them about their health, income, cognitive abilities and life circumstances. They also conducted physical tests, took body measurements and gathered blood and saliva samples for the study.
Dementia is a general term for memory loss and cognitive decline. Alzheimer’s disease — believed to be caused by an accumulation of plaque and tangles in the brain — is the most common type of dementia, followed by vascular dementia caused by a stroke.
According to the U.S. Census, the number of Americans over the age of 65 is expected to reach 84 million by the year 2050. With that increase in the senior population comes an anticipated increase in the number of Americans living with some form of dementia.
Researchers said that the decrease in dementia rates since 2000 may be tied to a number of lifestyle factors, including an increase in the educational levels of Americans and better heart health, both of which contribute to brain health. Many studies have shown a link between higher education levels and a lower risk for disease. People who are more educated tend to have better incomes and better access to healthcare. They are also more likely to exercise, have less stress, maintain a healthy weight and not smoke.
“A change in the overall dementia forecast can have a major economic impact,” said lead author Kenneth Langa, M.D., Ph.D., a professor in the U-M Medical School, Institute for Social Research and School of Public Health. “But it does nothing to lessen the impact that each case has on patients and caregivers. This is still going to be a top priority issue for families, and for health policy, now and in the coming decades.”
The study was published in a November 2016 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine by the research team from the University of Michigan.
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