Dementia is the term used to describe the symptoms of a large group of illnesses that cause a progressive decline in a person’s functioning. It is a broad term used to describe a loss of memory, intellect, rationality, social skills and physical functioning. There are many types of dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia and Lewy body disease. Dementia can happen to anybody, but it is more common after the age of 65.
Dementia is the second leading cause of death of Australians, but did you know that some simple lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of developing it?
A poll carried out by Ipsos MORI for Alzheimer’s Research UK found that of the 2361 UK adults surveyed, only 1 per cent were able to name all the seven known risk factors for the degenerative brain disease (a risk factor being anything that increases a person’s risk of developing a condition).
Worryingly, experts believe a third of all cases of dementia are influenced by common factors that are under people’s control, so it’s never been more important to arm yourself with the facts.
UK charity Alzheimer’s Society says that while there’s no way to be sure of preventing dementia altogether, there are some ‘modifiable’ factors we can influence – meaning we can take action to change them and potentially reduce the risk of dementia. Here are the lifestyle areas you should consider.
“Smokers are at an increased risk of both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Research estimates the effect is between a 30 per cent and a 50 per cent increase in risk depending on the study and type of dementia,” says Alzheimer’s Society research communications manager Lotty Davies.
So, don’t smoke. If you do already, try to quit the habit.
“Middle-aged and older adults who engage in regular aerobic exercise have lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Studies estimate the protective effect to be about 30–40 per cent reduced risk of dementia compared to those who do little or no physical activity,” says Ms Davies.
The charity recommends keeping physically active for at least 30 minutes, five times a week.
Traumatic head injury
“A severe injury to the head could increase the risk of dementia later in life,” she says. “There is lots of variability between studies on the size of the effect, but a study of 200,000 US war veterans suggests a severe head injury can increase the risk of dementia by up to 60 per cent.”
“Following a Mediterranean-style diet (with a high proportion of oily fish, fruit, vegetables, unrefined cereals and olive oil, and low levels of red meat and sugar) is associated with a reduced risk of dementia. Studies estimate that it could reduce the risk by about a third,” Ms Davies says.
It’s also advisable to keep your alcohol within recommended limits: a maximum of 14 units each week for men and women, spread over three or more days.
Type 2 diabetes
“People with type 2 diabetes are more likely to develop dementia than non-diabetics,” she says.
Keeping to a healthy weight will reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease – and, therefore, probably of dementia too, the charity says.
High blood pressure
“Long-term research studies have demonstrated that high blood pressure in mid-life is a key factor that can increase your risk of developing dementia in later life,” Ms Davies says. “A lifelong approach to good health as the best way to lower your risk of dementia.”
If you do have either of these conditions, it’s important to manage them correctly.
Poor childhood education
“People who spend fewer years in education as a child have an increased risk of developing dementia in later life. Although we can’t change this as adults, it is something that we can change as a society to reduce the cases of dementia in our future population,” she says.
The charity recommends giving your brain a daily workout by reading, doing puzzles, word searches or crosswords, playing cards or learning something new.
They also say keeping socially engaged and having a good social network may reduce your dementia risk. Take up a new hobby that involves socialising, join a club or volunteer.
Alongside this, there are also other risk factors for dementia that are not in our control. These include ageing, genes, gender (research suggests that women are more likely to develop it than men) and ethnicity (there is some evidence to suggest that people of South Asian, African or African-Caribbean origin develop dementia more often than Europeans), according to the charity.
Although Alzheimer’s Society says that the biggest risk factor for dementia is getting older, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that there are ways to actively reduce your risk as an individual.
Did you know the seven risk factors of dementia? How many of them do you stick to in day to day life?
– With PA
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Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.