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Can Early Life Experiences have an Impact on the Risk of Dementia?

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The National Institute on Aging (NIA) is funding a UC Davis Health study that will try to understand the way in which early life health and behavior affect the risk of cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. The $18 million, five-year grant from NIA is a renewal of funding for KHANDLE (Kaiser Healthy Aging and Diverse Life Experiences Study).

A recent article from UC Davis Health entitled “Do early life experiences shape the risk for dementia?” says that the groundbreaking study examines the entire spectrum of factors that may impact brain health.

“The KHANDLE study is the largest diverse cohort set up to answer questions about life course risk for late life brain outcomes, such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, cognitive decline, neurodegeneration and other brain diseases,” said Professor Rachel Whitmer, principal investigator on this grant and leader on KHANDLE. She is the chief of the division of epidemiology at the Department of Public Health Sciences and associate director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at UC Davis.

The researchers use a life course approach to study health and behavioral risks and protective factors associated with brain health outcomes. The approach assesses the physical and social hazards from gestation to midlife that may affect chronic disease risk and health outcomes in later life.

Rachel Whitmer is the associate director of Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at UC Davis. She says that “Aging is a lifelong process with earlier life experiences shaping adult and elderly health.” Whitmer goes on to state, “Our study allows us to do time travel in a sense, as we can leverage decades of information from medical records and health checkups, starting from the 1960 and 1970s.”

“What is particularly unique about our study is the diversity of the participants recruited. We are proud to have equal representation of Asian, Black, Latino and white participants,” Whitmer said.

About 6 million people in the U.S. are living with Alzheimer’s, but there are huge disparities in the rates of the disease and cognitive impairments across ethno-racial groups. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, older Black Americans are about twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementias as older whites. Older Hispanics are about 1.5 times as likely. This study will try to find out how and why that happens.

Professor Brittany Dugger, an assistant professor within the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center, runs the brain donation program at UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

She explained, “Brain donation is a very important part of dementia studies. One brain can have a huge impact, providing a plethora of information to advance scientific research and the potential to improve treatments for future generations. Brains are especially needed from diverse populations to help researchers improve diagnosis, treatments and prognosis of diseases for ALL individuals.”

“The COVID-19 epidemic has demonstrated the enormous disparities plaguing the U.S. Understanding drivers of health disparities is one of the greatest public health needs of our time,” Whitmer said. “The continuation of KHANDLE will help redress disparities in brain aging and provide needed public health information on reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia.”

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Reference:  UC Davis Health (Oct. 4, 2021) “Do early life experiences shape the risk for dementia?”