Study: Holocaust Survivors Have Higher Risk of Alzheimer’s

Do not cast me off in old age; when my strength fails, do not forsake me! Psalms 71:9 (The Israel Bible™)

Researchers have argued for many years about whether Jewish the remaining survivors of the Holocaust some eight decades ago are stronger or weaker physically and emotionally than those who did not endure the horrible suffering of the Nazi era. 

Now, a new international study conducted in cooperation with the University of Haifa has found that the risk of Holocaust survivors’ developing dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease are 1.21 times higher than those who did not go through the Holocaust.

“There are different and contradictory approaches that relate to the psychological effects of Holocaust terror on the survivors,” said Prof. Stephen Levine, a research associate at the university’s department of community mental health. The research was recently published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress under the title “Exposure to Genocide and the Risk of Dementia.”

 “On the one hand, it is possible that those who survived the Holocaust developed mechanisms that enabled them to be immune to neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia; but on the other hand, the trauma of the Holocaust could have increased the risk of developing these diseases. We found that survivors, in fact, are more vulnerable to developing dementia.

            In the current study, Dr. Arad Kodesh, Prof. Itzhav Levav and Levin examined the risk of developing dementia characterized by a decline in cognitive ability and impairment of daily activities among survivors. The study population included 51,752 subjects born before 1946 without a history of dementia and who were still alive in 2012. The development of dementia was monitored between 2017 and 2013.

            Of the 10,781 subjects who survived the Holocaust, 1,781 (16.5%) of the population developed dementia. Of the 40,792 subjects who did not go through the Holocaust, 3,803 subjects – who constituted 9.3% of this population – also developed dementia. After conducting a number of advanced statistical analyses that took into account factors such as gender, age, death at follow-up and more, the researchers found that Holocaust survivors were 1.21 times more likely to develop dementia than those who did not. 

The results of the study have a clinical significance in the long-term identification of dementia in Holocaust survivors and can also be relevant to those who endured other crimes against humanity in general. The current study results, they wrote, “are consistent with the hypothesis that exposure to the extreme adversities of genocide heightens vulnerability to the risk of dementia in later life.”

“There is a need to closely monitor the cognitive decline in a high-risk population that has experienced extreme and continuing trauma in general and Holocaust survivors in particular. Prolonged stress situations are a risk factor for dementia,” concluded Levine. 

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