Education may be the missing piece in the puzzle of solving why rates of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia have decreased lately.
According to new research released Monday, the rate of the disease in adults aged 65 and older dropped to about 9 percent in 2012 from nearly 12 percent in 2000, continuing a decline noted in earlier research.
However, if the population of this group of people continues to rise, the rate of Alzheimer’s may rise with it. That is, unless new ways are discovered to stave off the disease.
“People who continue to use their brain are less likely to have dementia,” Lori Harris, an Aging Disability Resource Connection counselor with Legacy Link Area Agency On Aging, said. “(Education) can keep it at bay.”
Lifelong education is only one of the factors the decrease has been attributed to. Those with the most schooling had the lowest likelihood to develop dementia, and the average level of education has increased over the years of the study.
According to the research, about 45 percent of older adults had at least 13 years of education in 2012, versus about 33 percent in 2000.
Previous studies have also found dementia less common among highly educated people, but it isn’t known whether education somehow protects the brain from dementia or if it helps people compensate for brain changes linked with Alzheimer’s or similar diseases.
“I think the decrease is fantastic,” Harris said. “Older adults who continue to be social and stay in activities are more common now.”
Legacy Link advocates for seniors, offering a service center with respite programs for caregivers, among other things.
“It’s really hard to see someone decline like that,” Harris said. “It’s something really hard to do. It’s hard on them, especially if it’s a loved one.”
There also are wellness programs available for seniors with dementias and other ailments, who go to the YMCA together, congregate for meals or have their questions about Medicare answered.
The Guest House, another senior-driven local nonprofit, holds annual training on handling dementia that is open to the public, with a focus on helping law enforcement deal with dementia patients. It also offers support groups for caregivers that meets at 2 p.m. every second Tuesday at the facility.
““It’s an overwhelming topic for some people. We take care of the frail,” said Dana Chapman, The Guest House executive director.
Chapman was hesitant to express her thoughts on the decrease in rates, since she has seen a massive increase in the number of people with Alzheimer’s or dementia she sees daily.
“Our population we serve has really shifted,” Chapman said.
The people used to be more evenly distributed between dementia, stroke or heart patients. Now, she said, 95 to 98 percent of the people who come to The Guest House have dementia or similar symptoms.
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, which can also be caused by strokes, Parkinson’s disease and other conditions.
An undetected urinary tract infection or a medication error, for example, can cause what looks like dementia, she said.
“Our nurses can tell by looking into the whites of their eyes, if they have a UTI,” Chapman said.
Chapman also cited The Alzheimer’s Association’s research, which estimates that about 5 million people aged 65 and older have the disease. That is expected to rise to almost 14 million by 2050.
Chapman estimated that the rate would go up again before it went down.
“The pendulum is going to swing one more time,” she said. “I’m not sure what to think about it.”
Dementia was most common in the oldest adults; in 2012 almost 30 percent of adults aged 85 and up were afflicted versus just 3 percent of those 65-74.
The new study was published by JAMA Internal Medicine and led by University of Michigan researchers. The research was paid for by the National Institute on Aging.
Researchers analyzed nationally representative government surveys of about 10,500 older adults in both years, including some living in nursing homes. They were interviewed and given mental tests by phone or in person; spouses or relatives responded for those impaired by dementia or other illness.
The dementia rate declined amid a rise in diabetes and heart disease. Both increase risks for Alzheimer’s and other dementias but the researchers say better treatment for both diseases may explain the results.
Obesity rates also increased, while dementia was most common among underweight adults. Previous research has shown weight loss may precede dementia by several years and that late-life obesity may be healthier than being underweight. But a journal editorial says more research is needed to determine whether excess pounds in older age somehow protect the brain.
John Haaga, director of the National Institute on Aging’s behavior and social research division, said dementia rates would have to decline much more sharply than they have to counteract the trend.
Haaga said more research is needed to explain the education-dementia link and to explore potential treatments that mimic the effects of education to stave off dementia.
Meantime, experts say there are ways to help keep your brain healthy. That includes avoiding smoking, eating healthy foods and getting plenty of exercise. Experts also advise staying mentally active — take a class, learn a new skill or hobby.
“There is reason to hope that you’re not doomed if you didn’t get massive education early in life,” Haaga said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.