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  • People with type 2 diabetes can be at an increased risk for dementia.
  • Researchers are still working to understand how lifestyle factors can modify dementia risk.
  • Data from a recent study indicates that people with type two diabetes are at a lower risk for dementia if they practice certain healthy lifestyle choices.

Dementia is a chronic condition that can be debilitating. Since dementia doesn’t have a cure, people often wonder what steps they can take to reduce their risk of developing dementia. A recent study published in Neurology found that for people with diabetes, incorporating certain healthy lifestyle habits was associated with a decreased risk of developing dementia.

Dementia is a broad term for disorders that impact people’s ability to remember, think, and reason. It typically gets more severe with time and can significantly interfere with people’s everyday lives and ability to live independently.

Some risk factors for dementia cannot be altered, such as increased age or family history. However, people can modify other risk factors to reduce risk. For example, smoking, obesity, and excessive use of alcohol are all risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

Having diabetes is also a risk factor for dementia, particularly type two diabetes. People with diabetes can work with their doctors to manage their condition and improve their health. Research is ongoing about how healthy lifestyle changes can improve conditions like diabetes and reduce dementia risk. ​

Researchers in this current study examined how seven healthy lifestyle habits impacted dementia risk. They looked at how these habits helped people with diabetes and those without diabetes. The habits included:

Researchers utilized the U.K. Biobank in their data collection. They included participants ages 60 years or older without dementia at the start of the study. They specifically excluded people with type one diabetes from data collection so that they could focus on individuals with type two diabetes.

​Researchers assigned participants a healthy lifestyle score based on the seven above behavior factors. Each category had a definition of what researchers classified as healthy. For example, someone was classified as being regularly physically active if they had “at least 150 minutes/week of moderate activity or 75 minutes/week of vigorous activity or an equivalent combination.”

The study included more than 160,000 participants, including more than 12,000 with diabetes. Researchers followed the participants for an average of 12 years. They found that healthy lifestyle factors were associated with a lower risk of developing dementia. But this risk reduction was even more pronounced among participants with diabetes.

Study author, Dr. Yingli Lu, Ph.D., of Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine in China, noted to Medical News Today:

“Our findings highlight that although patients with diabetes are at a higher risk of developing dementia later compared with those without, adherence to an overall healthy lifestyle may greatly reduce this risk.”

N​on-study author and Alzheimer’s researcher, Jeroen Mahieu, Ph.D., noted to MNT:

“The most important finding of this study is that adhering to a healthy lifestyle substantially reduces the risk of developing dementia for diabetes patients; significantly more than when you do not have diabetes. This is important given the greater prevalence of dementia among diabetes patients. Yet, due to the nature of the data and the research design we should be cautious with interpreting these effects as causal.”

The study indicates that incorporating healthy lifestyle habits may decrease the risk for dementia, particularly among people with diabetes. However, the study also had several limitations.

​First, information on lifestyle behaviors was self-reported, increasing the risk of data collection errors. Second, the researchers collected lifestyle factor data at baseline and did collect data on lifestyle factor changes. The study did not collect data about lifestyle factors for participants before they developed diabetes.

The researchers also noted that participants they had to exclude based on missing data were more likely to have lower education and socioeconomic status, which may have impacted the results. Based on the data collection methods, the research team acknowledged that they could have misclassified participants with diabetes or prediabetes as not having diabetes.

In addition, although several confounding factors were adjusted for, such as medication use, the authors acknowledged that there could be unknown or unmeasured factors unaccounted for. The study also included mainly Caucasian participants indicating that more diverse studies will be needed in the future.

Nevertheless, the study adds to a growing body of data regarding how lifestyle choices influence health. Dr. Lu explained to MNT:

“Our data may have important implications for doctors, and other medical professionals who treat people with diabetes. [They] should consider recommending lifestyle changes to their patients. Such changes may not only improve overall health but also contribute to the prevention or delayed onset of dementia in people with diabetes. Future research is needed to determine how combined healthy lifestyle behaviors benefit cognitive outcomes in diabetes and the possible mechanisms.”