Dementia is a general term for brain decline caused by disease. The most commonly recognised symptom – memory loss – illustrates how devastating dementia can be for those suffering from it and their loved ones. Despite its prevalence (one in six people over the age of 80 have dementia), far too little is understood about the condition.
A common misconception is that dementia is a feature of the ageing process so many people view it as inevitable.
Ongoing research suggests lifestyle decisions can influence your risk, however.
In fact, evidence suggests that 40 percent of dementia cases could be prevented if 12 risk factors are eliminated.
So, how can I reduce my risk?
Speaking to Express.co.uk, Dr Rosa Sancho, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, outlined six key lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of dementia.
As Dr Sancho explained, there are already many good health reasons to stop smoking as it is linked to multiple medical conditions including cancer, heart disease, stroke and more.
“There is also evidence that smoking can increase your risk of dementia,” she said.
What you can do to reduce the risk: “Giving up smoking is not necessarily easy, so seeking advice from trained advisors can help with planning an effective way to quit the habit for good,” says Dr Sancho.
The NHS Smokefree National Helpline is free to call on 0300 123 1044 or talk to your GP for advice.
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Dr Sancho said: “There is strong evidence linking obesity to dementia, as with many other serious health conditions including heart disease.”
What’s more, obesity is closely linked to type 2 diabetes, which is also a risk factor linked to dementia, so by tackling obesity you could help to improve your health on many levels, she said.
What you can do to reduce the risk: “By eating a healthy, balanced diet, and regularly exercising and keeping active, you will give yourself the best chance of maintaining a healthy weight, as well as reducing your risk of diabetes,” said Dr Sancho.
In turn, you’ll also be helping to protect yourself from the diseases that cause dementia, she notes.
You can speak to your GP about support in maintaining a healthy lifestyle if required. The Eatwell Guide can also help by showing what a balanced diet should look like.
Further emphasising the last point, research shows that older people who regularly take part in physical activities have a lower risk of cognitive problems and vascular dementia, says Dr Sancho.
“But keeping physically active can hold benefits for people of any age, so it is never too early or too late to adopt a lifestyle that supports a healthy brain and improves vascular health,” she said.
What you can do to reduce the risk: “Depending on your health and fitness, there are many ways to stay active, from going for short walks or doing some gardening to taking up physical activities such as running, swimming or cycling,” noted Dr Sancho.
Lower high blood pressure
If your blood pressure is too high, it puts extra strain on your blood vessels, heart and other organs, such as the brain, kidneys and eyes.
“Persistent high blood pressure can increase your risk of a number of serious and potentially life-threatening conditions including forms of dementia such as vascular dementia,” warns Dr Sancho.
What you can do to reduce the risk: “By cutting out smoking, eating a healthy diet and regularly exercising you can help to reduce your blood pressure,” she said.
However, if you do all of these things and still have high blood pressure, or have a family history of high blood pressure, you should speak to your GP about how you can address this, notes Dr Sancho.
Watch your alcohol intake
The latest evidence suggests that heavy alcohol use may be associated with an increased risk of dementia.
Dr Sancho explained: “Long-term heavy drinking is known to cause alcohol-related dementia, including Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), which can be treated. If you are concerned, talk to your GP for advice.”
What you can do to reduce the risk: “The best advice is to follow the Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk guidelines,” she said.
This means not regularly drinking more than 14 units a week for both men and women.
People who drink as much as this should spread their drinking over three or more days, but also have several alcohol-free days each week.
Social isolation & lack of mental stimulation
According to Dr Sancho, research findings suggest that social isolation and a lack of mental stimulation could contribute to cognitive decline and therefore raise the risk of developing dementia.
What you can do to reduce the risk: “Researchers have suggested that maintaining a regular social life and taking part in hobbies and activities that stimulate the brain may help to lower the risk of developing dementia,” she said.
Dr Sancho added: “While social activities might look a little different at the moment, it is important to keep in touch with family and friends, and many local groups are finding new ways to connect online.”
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