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Experts say staying active is one way to lower the risk of bone loss in older age. milan2099/Getty Images
  • Researchers say a loss in bone density may be linked to an increased risk of dementia.
  • The researchers say they aren’t sure why there may be a connection, but they note that low bone density and dementia tend to occur in older age.
  • Experts say daily activity and a healthy diet are two ways to improve overall bone health.

People with low bone density could have an increased risk of developing dementia, according to a study published today in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Researchers in the Netherlands evaluated the medical records and X-rays of 3,651 people with an average age of 72.

All were interviewed every 4 to 5 years and completed physical tests, including X-rays and dementia screening.

None of the participants had dementia at the start of the study.

Some of the findings included:

  • Over an average of 11 years, 688 people (19%) developed dementia
  • Of the 1,211 people with the lowest bone density, 90 people developed dementia within 10 years
  • Of the 1,211 people with the highest bone density, 57 people developed dementia within 10 years

After adjusting for age, sex, education, other illnesses, medical use, and family history of dementia, the researchers reported that people with lower bone density were 42% more likely to develop dementia than those with higher bone density.

The researchers noted that the study shows an association but not cause and effect.

The researchers said that bone density loss could occur at the earliest stages of dementia and, if so, could indicate risk.

With that knowledge, medical professionals could target people with the bone loss for earlier and more frequent screening and improved care.

The researchers also reported that little is known about a possible relationship in the years leading up to dementia and that bone loss increases with physical inactivity and poor nutrition, both of which occur in patients with dementia.

A limitation of the study is that participants were primarily European over the age of 70, so the results might not be applicable to other races, ethnicities, and ages.

“I think this is a very reasonable finding. As with other studies that find an association, I always believe that more work needs to be done to discover why there might be that connection,” said Dr. Joel Salinas, a behavioral neurologist and researcher at NYU Langone Health and chief medical officer at Isaac Health in New York.

“In this case, there could be a few reasons why there is a relationship between dementia and bone loss,” Salinas told Healthline.

He said the reasons could include:

  • Both these diseases are closely linked to age.
  • There may be inflammation involved in contributing to both diseases.
  • Diet, nutrition, and lifestyle.

“It is never too late to improve lifestyle factors, such as diet and activity levels,” Salinas added. “While the sooner, the better is true, making a deliberate effort in these areas can help slow the progression of dementia, even if there are already signs of cognitive decline.”

Low bone density can lead to osteoporosis, a weakening of the bone, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Many people do not know they have this condition until they break a bone. Bone loss is sometimes called a “silent” disease because there usually aren’t symptoms.

“I think there are likely multiple general health issues that could lead to low bone density and dementia,” said Dr Adam Rivadeneyra, a sports medicine physician with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California. “General strength, balance, exercise capacity and overall “wellness” are great predictors for most health issues related to aging.”

“Dementia and bone health are two common issues we all deal with to some degree as we age, so it’s no surprise there might be a correlation,” Rivadeneyra told Healthline. “We know that smoking carries a large risk for both low bone density and dementia, along with cardiorespiratory issues. Alcohol abuse is also implicated in poor bone health and dementia as we age. Heart disease, chronic medication use (for certain medications), injuries and trauma, metabolic problems like thyroid disease or diabetes, and a strong family history (genetics) all contribute to many of these ‘age-related’ conditions we commonly see.”

It is also crucial to eat a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D.

Osteoporosis is a major cause of broken bones in postmenopausal women and older men.

Although any bone in the body can break, older adults most often experience hip, vertebrae, and wrist fractures.

“Women have a higher risk of osteoporosis and dementia, which could be related to lack of estrogen after menopause,” said Dr. Gayatri Devi, a neurologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.

“People with reduced physical activity- often in older persons because of medical problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke – have reduced bone density and, independently, increased risk for dementia,” Devi told Healthline

“The critical takeaway is that bone density can be treated easily and effectively and reduce the risk for dementia, fractures, and hospitalization,” she added. “I believe that everyone 50 and over should have a baseline bone density, as there is an effective treatment, using drugs or exercise.”