Dementia rates are on the rise, but a better understanding of its risk factors may help stem the tide of the disease in coming decades. The disease is characterised by several inflammatory mechanisms that progressively hamper brain functions over time. Alopecia areata, which shares a similar inflammatory signature to dementia, may also have a poor impact on cognitive health, recent findings suggest.
The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2021, found that alopecia Areata (AA) significantly increased dementia risk.
AA causes hair to fall out in round or oval patches on the scalp or across the body, including the beard, eyebrows, eyelashes, or body hair, including pubic hair.
The health body Alopecia UK explains: “In AA, cells from the immune system gather around the hair follicles.
“These cells attack the follicle, stopping it from producing more hair. The exact way in which this happens is not yet understood.”
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The condition can be hereditary, caused by hormonal changes, medical conditions, or a normal part of ageing.
In the majority of cases, regrowth will eventually occur, although patchy hair loss may persist for a long period of time.
The lead author of the study, Cheng-Yuan Li, put the connection down to poor social engagement and “shared inflammatory cytokines”.
What’s more, it was noted that patients with AA often suffer from anxiety and depression caused by the negative emotional and psychological impact of hair loss.
Large-scale studies have previously provided evidence that autoimmune and inflammatory mechanisms may be implicated in the onset of brain decline.
For the latest study, researchers analysed data available for 2534 patients with AA by comparing them with 25,340 otherwise healthy individuals, who were aged around 54 years.
After accounting for potential confounders, the team found those with AA were more likely to develop dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and unspecified dementia compared to controls.
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Patients with AA were also at higher risk for vascular dementia compared with controls, although this difference was not statistically significant.
In this group, there was a threefold higher risk of developing “any form of dementia” and a fourfold higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Mr Li said: “Intervention targeting poor social engagement and inflammatory cytokines may be beneficial to AA-associated dementia.
“Physicians should be more aware of this possible association, help reduce disease discrimination among the public and encourage more social engagement for AA patients.