Lung Disease May Increase Dementia Risk

Blood vessel damage and inflammation may be to blame, researchers say.

Smokers already face a greater risk of heart disease, lung cancer, and stroke, but new research suggests there may be another reason to quit: People who suffer from lung disease in their middle age may have a higher risk of dementia or cognitive impairment later in life.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota analyzed the health data of more than 14,000 people who had undergone a spirometry – a standard medical test used to diagnose lung diseases. The investigators tracked the participants’ health conditions over approximately 23 years. During that time period, nearly 10 percent of the participants developed dementia. Researchers found that of the participants who developed dementia, those with a restrictive lung disease had a 58 percent higher risk of developing dementia or a cognitive impairment than people without lung disease. This increased probability was also extended to people who had an obstructive lung disease – they were 33 percent more likely to lose their cognitive function than those who were disease-free.

According to researchers, the increased risk may be driven by low oxygen levels in the blood brought on by lung disease, leading to irregular inflammation in the body and blood vessel damage.

“Preventing lung disease is inherently important,” says lead author Dr. Pamela Lutsey, associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “If other studies confirm our findings, both individuals and policymakers will have an added incentive to make changes that protect lung health, as doing so may also prevent dementia."

To reduce your risk of dementia, the Alzheimer’s Society recommends exercising five times a week, eating a balanced diet, drinking alcohol in moderation and stimulating your mind by doing puzzles or learning a new language. All of these factors can help the brain build a “cognitive reserve” and cope with the disease.

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