As you age, the fear of developing dementia becomes more pressing. You start to wonder if your inability to remember someone’s name or where you put your car keys means something more serious. In addition to looking out for those kind of red flags, there are a handful of common risk factors that can contribute to your risk of developing the disease, like your diet, physical activity, mental health, and drinking habits. But you may not know that researchers have also found that certain stomach problems are linked to a higher risk of dementia, too. Knowing that you’re predisposed to the illness can help you adjust your lifestyle and plan ahead with your doctor. To see if you have one of these stomach problems that ups your chances of developing dementia, read on.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) doubles your risk of dementia.
A 2020 study published in the journal Gut found that inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) doubles your risk of developing dementia. According to the study’s findings, 5.5 percent of participants with IBD, which includes the common conditions ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, developed dementia, compared to 1.5 percent of participants without IBD. However, after accounting for other potential influential factors, including age and underlying conditions, those with IBD were 2.54 times more likely to develop dementia than those without the condition.
“Our findings suggest there may be an intimate connection between IBD and neurocognitive decline,” lead author Bing Zhang, MD, said in a statement. “Interestingly, we also found that dementia risk appeared to accelerate over time, correlating with the chronicity of IBD diagnosis.”
Dementia was diagnosed seven years earlier in people with IBD on average.
The study also found that people with IBD were diagnosed around seven years earlier than those without IBD. According to the research, people with IBD were diagnosed at the age of 76 on average, while those without IBD were diagnosed on average at the age of 83.
Additionally, people with IBD were six times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, than those without IBD, the authors pointed out in a statement in the BMJ.
The risk of dementia also seemed to be higher for people who had IBD for longer. “Dementia risk appeared to accelerate over time, correlating with the chronicity of IBD diagnosis,” study author Hohui E. Wang, MD, said in the statement.
The brain-gut connection could be at the root of the link.
Many studies have sought to understand the connection between the gut and the central nervous system, which all comes down to your enteric nervous system (ENS). Often referred to as your second brain, the ENS is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells that line your gastrointestinal tract, the experts at Johns Hopkins explain. It’s the reason why you get “butterflies in your stomach” when you’re nervous or why you’re often told to “go with your gut.”
The ENS can trigger emotional shifts for people with irritable bowel disease and other stomach problems, and perhaps vice versa. “For decades, researchers and doctors thought that anxiety and depression contributed to these problems. But our studies and others show that it may also be the other way around,” says Jay Pasricha, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, insinuating that the gut can affect the brain, too.
Wang, author of the study on dementia and IBD, noted that anxiety and depression are also prevalent in about 20 to 30 percent of IBD patients. “While the cause of IBD is not clear, it is thought to develop from an impaired immune response to changes in the gut microbiome,” read the authors’ statement in the BMJ.
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If you have IBD, watch out for early signs of dementia.
If you’re concerned about your risk of developing dementia, be sure to look out for early signs of the illness. Memory loss, misplacing things, trouble planning or problem-solving, difficulty completing familiar tasks, and changes in mood or personality are just a handful of the early signs of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. If you notice any of these symptoms, especially if you have IBD, it’s best to talk with your doctor.