A Lifetime of Dementia Prevention
Research duo envisions young adults being proactive in dementia prevention.
No matter your age, you can act now to prevent dementia. But for young adults, it may not be clear what exactly your actions should be.
Most existing research looks at what adults in midlife (40- to 60-years-old) can do for dementia prevention, but there is a sheer lack of data on how younger adults (19- to 39-years-old) can act. Even the 12 potentially modifiable risk factors identified by the 2020 Lancet Commission report only lists one risk factor specific to younger people: less education.
Researchers Francesca Farina and Laura Booi say there is much that younger people can do to prevent dementia, so they embarked on a journey to discover risk factors for younger adults, and they’re in it for the long haul.
Their recently published editorial, Brain health in young adults, co-authored by Sarah Gregory and Brian Lawlor, explains what it means to take a lifespan approach to prevent dementia — or taking steps to prevent dementia throughout one’s life — and describes why their research is needed.
Though researchers in the past have mentioned a lifespan approach, Farina and Booi’s study will expand the research beyond the existing risk factors and give young people a better idea of how to prevent dementia.
About the research
Farina and Booi started their research in 2021 when they created a working group full of individuals from Europe and North America who were experts in fields such as nutrition, hormones, genetics and brain imaging, and other areas that support taking a holistic view of how young adult brains age healthily or unhealthily throughout their lifespan.
First, the group conducted public person involvement and focus groups, asking questions about brain health.
“People came forward with things like, ‘Is Botox good or bad for your brain? Is getting education, or too much education, bad for your brain? Is having too much screen time good or bad for your brain?’” says Booi, a social gerontologist, an Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health for GBHI, and the co-founder of World Young Leaders in Dementia.
"We're doing this study to try to understand if the recommendations that people tend to give to people in midlife also apply to this younger group."
– Francesca Farina
As the next step in their study, they are planning a 10-minute survey about brain health for young people across the globe to participate in, set to be released in the first half of 2023. By the end of next year, they plan to start collecting data for the cohort study and recruit people to bring into the lab.
“We're going to find a group of individuals in this age demographic, and we'll follow them for as much time as we can get funding for,” says Booi. “We'll be doing genetic and blood testing, MRI testing and personality inventories to really look at the changes in their brains across the lifespan.”
They hope to get data from people then invite them back at least a year or two later to take measures again.
“We're doing this study to try to understand if the recommendations that people tend to give to people in midlife also apply to this younger group — if it's more or less important to be thinking about some of these factors earlier and later,” says Farina, a neuroscientist and a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health for the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI).
“We don't really understand how those factors might influence risk later on either because we're not doing longitudinal studies following up with these age groups.”
Expanding the approach
Though their starting point is the Lancet Commission’s 12 potentially modifiable risk factors, they’re also looking at others such as caffeine, cannabis, diet, birth control, racism, capitalism, structural violence, sexual orientation and intimate partner violence.
Something also not done before in the popular research is studying how different situations and challenges people face in life can impact brain health. Thus, Farina and Booi aim to take a more “holistic, economical approach,” looking at socio-economic status and whether the modifiable risk factors are actually modifiable or if society needs to put in policies to negate them.
For example, the Lancet Commission’s recommendation for young people to get plenty of education may pose issues for some people. But Farina and Booi are going into the research with the knowledge that not everyone has access to, or can afford, proper education.
“If you’re 16 and your family hasn’t had access to that education, how is that a modifiable risk factor for you?” says Booi. “Or, if you have to live in a place that’s got really bad air quality, because you can’t afford anything else?”
"[Young people] have the most opportunities throughout their lifespan to change things and to make different, positive, direct moves towards their brain health."
– Laura Booi
Despite these types of social challenges, Farina and Booi say young people are well placed to start preventing dementia.
“[Young people] have the most opportunities throughout their lifespan to change things and to make different, positive, direct moves towards their brain health,” Booi says. “Also, there’s opportunity to mobilize, to use technology, to make cultural changes and as a collective be like, ‘We're not going to stand for this anymore.’”
Farina says with their research they aim to empower young adults to be active agents in monitoring their own health.
“We know that younger generations tend to be quite health conscious, broadly speaking,” she says. “So, if we can get a brain health message out to them to care about in the same way, I think there's huge potential to reduce risk and hopefully prevent future cases of dementia.”
Taking a lifespan approach to preventing dementia will not only have individual impacts such as adding quality of years to life and reducing the long-term disability that can come with dementia, but it can have many societal benefits.
“[It will] positively impact the health-care system, increase independence and give the younger adult population autonomy in their own futures,” says Booi.
The duo hopes to be able to find funding to allow them to follow up with study participants years down the road, but until then, they take solace in knowing their research will have a positive impact overall.
“By doing all of these things and gaining this knowledge, it's only going to have positive effects,” says Farina, “not just for future dementia, but across the board, for people's health and well-being.”
GET MORE INFORMATION
See Farina and Booi's editorial "Brain health in young adults".
Read the 2020 Lancet Commission report including the 12 potentially modifiable risk factors for dementia.
Discover more research updates highlighting innovative research helping you to live well despite dementia.
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