Most Americans are more afraid of developing dementia, which includes Alzheimer’s disease, than any other condition, including cancer, heart disease, and stroke. Many people worry about losing their independence, becoming a burden to their family, or forgetting their loved ones.
About 47 million people worldwide now live with dementia, and that number is expected to almost triple by 2050. Currently, there is no cure for this progressive brain condition. Yet dementia isn’t an inevitable part of getting older, says an international group of experts in psychiatry, dementia, and aging.
After reviewing leading research, The Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention, and Care identified nine modifiable lifestyle changes that it says could prevent more than one-third of dementia cases. The commission analyzed current and emerging evidence on preventing, diagnosing, and managing dementia in a July 2017 report in The Lancet.
Of the nine lifestyle recommendations, only one-secondary or higher education-must have been implemented early in life. People who don’t attend or finish high school are at higher risk for dementia than those who graduate. Education helps build cognitive reserve-a type of intellectual buffer that makes your brain more resilient against the effects of aging. However, the commission suggested that education later in life mightincrease cognitive reserve, although there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove its relevance.
Factors you can modify now
The good news is that you can implement the remaining eight changes below.
1. Protect your hearing. Hearing loss is a recently discovered risk factor for dementia. The reason for the connection isn’t yet clear, but the conditions are both related to aging and damage to small blood vessels. Hearing loss also contributes to social isolation and depression, which can increase dementia risk. Studies haven’t shown whether treating hearing loss helps prevent memory loss, but it’s worth getting your hearing checked.
2. Don’t smoke. Cigarette smoke contains a cocktail of toxic chemicals harmful to both your body and brain. Smoking may also influence dementia risk by damaging blood vessels.
3. Control depression. Depression could theoretically increase dementia risk by increasing stress hormone levels or by shrinking the hippocampus-the part of the brain involved with learning and memory. But it’s not clear whether a down mood is either a risk for memory loss or an early symptom of dementia.
4. Be active. While exercise hasn’t been proven to prevent dementia, studies suggest that older adults who stay active maintain better memory than those who are inactive. Physical fitness also has other benefits, like improving mood, balance, and longevity. Both aerobic exercise and strength training seem to protect memory.
5. Lower high blood pressure. Uncontrolled high blood pressure narrows and weakens the arteries that supply oxygen-rich blood to your brain. It can also lead to strokes caused by blockages in blood flow that lead to brain cell death. Lowering blood pressure with medication may reduce the risk of mental decline.
6. Stay socially engaged. Having dementia makes it harder to get out and maintain friendships. Researchers think that social isolation also contributes to memory loss, in part by preventing intellectually stimulating interactions. Loneliness is also a risk factor for high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, and depression, all of which have been associated with dementia.
7. Treat diabetes. Diabetes has been linked to a nearly twofold increase in dementia risk. In type 2 diabetes, the body’s cells become less sensitive to the effects of insulin. A rise in insulin damages blood vessels throughout your body- including those in your brain. Also, abnormal levels of insulin in the brain might cause other chemicals in the brain to become unbalanced.
8. Lose excess weight. Obesity in middle age is associated with an approximately 50 percent increased risk of dementia later in life. Being obese also contributes to other dementia risks, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
Sleep well, eat well
The study highlighted other factors that might lower dementia risk. They include getting adequate sleep and following a Mediterranean-style diet, which focuses on fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains; moderate amounts of fish; limited dairy (mostly yogurt and cheese); and a small amount of red meat or sweets.