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Moving up in social status can lower the risk of dementia

A recent study has found that upward mobility in a person’s social status can significantly reduce their risk of developing dementia, or at least delay the onset.

Dementia, a term for conditions characterized by memory loss and reduced cognitive function, not only burdens healthcare systems but also severely impacts the quality of life for patients and their families.

Previous research has shown a correlation between socioeconomic status (SES) — including parents’ assets, education level, income, and work status — and the risk of dementia.

However, the role of social mobility, or changes in SES throughout one’s life, in influencing this risk has not been well documented.

Aging and cognitive function

Dementia is a general term for a decline in cognitive function severe enough to interfere with daily life. It encompasses a range of conditions characterized by memory loss, impaired judgment, and changes in behavior.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, accounting for 60-80% of cases. Other types include vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, and frontotemporal dementia.

Symptoms of dementia often start with mild memory loss but progressively worsen over time. People with dementia may struggle with language, disorientation, mood swings, and difficulty performing familiar tasks.

These cognitive impairments result from damage to brain cells, affecting their ability to communicate with each other.

While age is the most significant risk factor, dementia is not a normal part of aging. Genetics, lifestyle, and health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes also contribute to the risk. Early diagnosis and supportive care can improve quality of life for those affected and their families.

Linking social status to dementia risk

Researchers from Osaka University, publishing in JAMA Network Open, have provided data-backed evidence linking upward social mobility to a lower risk of dementia.

Their findings indicate that a downward transition in social status is associated with the greatest loss of healthy longevity from age 75 onward.

Conversely, an upward SES transition is linked with the longest period of healthy longevity. Remarkably, the benefits of upward mobility surpass those of individuals with consistently high SES since childhood.

“Thanks to a large and robust dataset, our findings solidify the association between socioeconomic mobility and dementia risk,” says the study’s lead author.

“Our finding that upward social mobility throughout a person’s life correlates with a prolonged period of dementia-free aging means that improving socioeconomic conditions could be a key to dementia prevention and healthier longevity.”

Dementia and social status transition

The researchers analyzed data from the Japan Gerontological Evaluation Study (JAGES), which tracked 9,186 participants aged 65 and over from 2010 to 2016.

Using unsupervised clustering analysis and data-driven classification, they examined changes in participants’ SES throughout their lives.

The study identified six distinct SES transition patterns and used a national registry of long-term nursing care services to determine dementia incidence, allowing for a detailed examination of the relationship between these transitions and dementia risk.

Impact of status transitions on dementia risk

The analysis revealed that upward SES transitions are associated with a significantly lower risk of developing dementia compared to stable SES patterns. On the other hand, downward SES transitions markedly increase the risk.

The study also investigated the mediating effects of lifestyle behaviors, comorbidities, and social factors on the relationship between SES transitions and dementia risk.

Physical characteristics and lifestyle behaviors were particularly influential in upward transitions, while social factors played a significant role in downward transitions.

“Future research should delve deeper into the mechanisms by which SES influences cognitive health, including potential interventions for mitigating dementia risk,” says the senior author.

“Understanding the nuances of how SES and its transitions impact dementia is vital for developing targeted strategies addressing underlying socioeconomic factors throughout one’s life.”

Importance of socioeconomic mobility

This study highlights the significant impact that upward social mobility can have on reducing the risk of dementia and promoting healthier longevity.

As such, improving socioeconomic conditions may be a key strategy in dementia prevention, offering hope for healthier, dementia-free lives.

The full study was published in the journal JAMA Network Open.


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