Literature Review

Survey asks adults: How likely are you to develop dementia?

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Fear of dementia isn’t surprising, but using supplements to confront it isn’t helpful

I do not find it surprising that older adults fear dementia. Since they correctly perceive that there is no disease-modifying therapy (and maybe also that “getting caught with memory loss” would lead to a loss of driving privileges and other restrictions), they may be trying not to focus on it. As for asking about strategies to “prevent” dementia, that question implies unwarranted optimism about the effectiveness of any such strategy, especially in an older adult. I think we can say that a lifetime of healthy habits (regular physical exercise and careful control of any chronic conditions like diabetes being particularly important) may reduce our risk of dementia a bit, but the idea that anything a 75-year-old does is going to prevent it at that point is probably wishful thinking. Supplements and the like seem to have their own followers. It amazes me how many people suspect what they are taking probably does no good but they do it anyway out of blind hope. Sometimes we can talk them out of spending their money on such things – but not always.

Richard Caselli, MD, is associate director and clinical core director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz.



Adults worried about dementia are far more likely to do crossword puzzles and take fish oil than they are to talk to their doctor about risk, Donovan T. Maust, MD, and colleagues reported in a research letter published in JAMA Neurology.

More than half of study participants used crossword puzzles as a memory exercise, but only 5% said they spoke to their physician about how to reduce risk. Ironically, this lack of communication was also associated with buying unproven over-the-counter memory supplements, while still remaining ignorant of proven ways to head off dementia and other contributing chronic conditions, wrote Dr. Maust of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and coauthors.

Their analysis of the Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging found that close to half of respondents (48.5%) reported that they were at least somewhat likely to develop dementia. Another 4.2% thought dementia was “very likely” in their future.

The study comprised survey responses from 1,019 adults aged 50-64 years. Most rated their physical health either excellent (445 respondents) or good (413 respondents). Most also reported excellent or very good mental health (721 respondents); 234 reported good mental health. Many (678) were affluent, with annual incomes of $60,000 or higher. They tended to be well educated; only 337 were without at least some college education. More than half were white (753); there were 101 Hispanic respondents and 93 black respondents. Other groups made up the remainder.

A multivariate analysis found that black respondents were about half as likely to believe they would develop dementia, compared with whites – an assumption contrary to epidemiologic findings that blacks are more likely than whites to develop dementia.

People who reported fair or poor mental health were more than twice as likely to feel dementia was in their future (odds ratio, 2.3). But fair or poor physical health was not significantly associated with that concern.

“Those with fair to poor physical health did not accurately perceive that their likelihood of developing dementia was potentially higher than respondents with very good or excellent physical health,” the authors wrote. “In contrast, fair to poor mental health had the largest association with perceived likelihood of dementia, even though less evidence suggests that poor mental health is causally linked with dementia.”

Despite the concerns, just 5% of respondents said that they had spoken to their physician. Those who believed they had a high likelihood of dementia were more likely to talk with their clinician (7.1%) than those who believed they had a low risk (3.6%).

Many more, however, were using non–evidence-based compounds touted as memory supporting. These included fish oil or omega-3 fatty acids (31.6%) and vitamins or supplements (32.9%). Crossword puzzles were a very popular prevention strategy, employed by about 55% in both belief groups.

“While managing chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease, could reduce dementia risk, few respondents appear to have discussed this with their physician. Given repeated failures of disease-preventing or disease-modifying treatments for dementia, interest in treatment and prevention has shifted earlier in the disease process. Adults in middle age may not accurately estimate their risk of developing dementia, which could lead to both overuse and underuse if preclinical dementia treatments become available. Policy and physicians should emphasize current evidence-based strategies of managing lifestyle and chronic medical conditions to reduce the risk of dementia,” the investigators wrote.

Dr. Maust had no financial disclosures.

SOURCE: Maust D et al. JAMA Neurol. 2019 Nov 15. doi: 10.1001/jamaneurol.2019.3946

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