Older adults who think they're not in tiptop health may have a greater risk of developing dementia than folks who believe they're healthy, French researchers reported in the journal Neurology.

Someday, "having people rate their own health may be a simple tool for doctors to determine a person's risk of dementia, especially for people with no symptoms or memory problems," said Christophe Tzourio, MD, PhD, of the neuroepidemiology unit at the Victor Segalen Bordeaux II University.

Still, not everyone was convinced by the research.

"It is one of the first studies to look at this correlation and we really don't know what that means," said Heather M. Snyder, PhD, senior associate director for Medical & Scientific Relations at the Alzheimer's Association. She was not involved in the study.

Study Details

In their report, published online in Neurology, Dr. Tzourio's team suggest that doctors might use a patient's self-rated health to predict the potential for mental decline.

They collected data on almost 8,200 people aged 65 years and older who were asked to rate their health at the start of the study.

During roughly seven years of follow-up, 618 people developed dementia. For those who said their health was poor, the risk for developing dementia was 70% higher than for those who rated their health as good. For those who rated their health as fair, the risk was 34% higher, they noted.

Zeroing In On The Associations

Of course, health problems such as heart disease have been strongly linked to increased odds for dementias—including Alzheimer's disease-in prior studies. But the French team note that the increase in risk for dementia tied to poor self-reported health stuck even after they accounted for heart disease and other chronic ailments.

Furthermore, the association between fair and poor health ratings and dementia was even greater among those who had no memory or thinking skill problems at the time, Dr. Tzourio's group found.

For these symptom-free people who rated their health as poor, the risk of developing dementia was almost twice as high compared with those who rated their health as good, the researchers found. In the absence of a full assessment of their mental skills, their self-reported health was therefore the only indicator of a possible decline in brain functioning, the authors said.

Contributing Factors

What factors might be contributing to the effect? "We know that having a large social network and social activities are associated with a decreased risk of dementia," Dr. Tzourio noted in the news release. "Therefore, it's possible that rating one's health as poor might be associated with behaviors that limit social interaction and in turn accelerate the dementia process," he speculated.

However, before the findings can be taken as fact, they need to be replicated, Dr. Snyder said. "We would really need to have a much larger study in a more diverse population to assess and figure out what this correlation means," she said.

What is known is that Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia, starts to develop 10 to 20 years before symptoms show, Dr. Snyder said. So, these feelings about general health might indicate that a person senses something has changed before the disease is evident, she added.

Dementia/Sepsis Connection

Dementia may be linked to sepsis. Sepsis, a life-threatening blood infection, kills about one-third of those affected.

Recent study: Elderly patients who survive severe sepsis are more than three times as likely as other elderly patients to experience long-term cognitive impairment. Talk to your doctor about steps to prevent and treat sepsis.

Marriage and Dementia

Did you know that spouses of people with dementia are six times more likely to develop the illness? Increased risk may be caused by the stress associated with caring for a loved One struggling with dementia. Shared environmental factors such as diet also may be responsible.

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