Not likely—at least not on their own. But older people who have multiple signs of poorer overall health—like difficulty hearing, joint problems and ill-fitting dentures—may be more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia, researchers say.
Although several age-related health problems are linked to dementia—such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes—these conditions only partly explain the increase in risk as we get older. And they can't reliably predict who will develop dementia and who will not.
Some research has suggested that a person's overall health may provide a clearer indication of their dementia risk. To explore this, a group of Canadian researchers put together a "frailty index" of 19 factors related to an older person's health, but not normally connected with dementia. This included problems affecting their eyesight, hearing, dental health, digestion, kidneys and bladder, ankles and feet, skin, joints, and bones, among other problems.
The researchers then tracked more than 7,000 people age 65 and older for 10 years to see if their score on the frailty index was linked to their risk of developing dementia. None of the participants had symptoms of dementia at the start of the study.
The findings? People with more signs of frailty—such as arthritis and ill-fitting dentures—had a higher risk of dementia than people with fewer signs.
For each additional problem, a person's risk of dementia increased by 3.2 percent.
People's scores on the frailty index also more closely predicted their risk of dementia than several known risk factors, including heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
These are intriguing findings. But we can't yet be certain that the people were more likely to get dementia because of these health problems, as there could have been other things that increased their risk. For example, the researchers didn't look at whether the participants smoked, were obese or got little exercise. Studies have suggested that these factors (among others) may also raise the chance of dementia.
Bottom line: These findings provide an extra incentive to take good care of your body as you age, showing that your overall health may play a role in determining your risk of Alzheimer's and other types of dementia. If you are older and having health problems, be sure to see your doctor. Treatments for many age-related ailments, such as arthritis, can work well.
Nontraditional risk factors combine to predict Alzheimer disease and dementia [Neurology]
—Sophie Ramsey, BMJ Group
ConsumerReportsHealth.org has partnered with The BMJ Group to monitor the latest medical research and assess the evidence to help you decide which news you should use.