Act now to cut your dementia risk

Australia’s ageing population has an ever-growing number of people living with dementia. Researchers are on the hunt for medical breakthroughs, but what can we do to lessen our chance of spending our latter years confused and unable to lead any semblance of a normal life.

Dementia affects more than 425,000 Australians, according to the latest research, and is the second-ranked cause of death. Around 30 per cent of people aged over 85 live with dementia.

We can’t change our age or genetic profile, but we can make adjustments to our lifestyle to reduce our dementia risk, reports. It suggests the following strategies.

1. Engage in mentally stimulating activities
Education is an important determinant of dementia risk. Having less than 10 years of formal education can increase the chances of developing dementia. People who don’t complete any secondary school have the greatest risk.

The good news is that we can still strengthen our brain at any age, through workplace achievement and leisure activities such as reading newspapers, playing card games and learning a new language or skill.

The evidence suggests that group-based training for memory and problem-solving strategies could improve long-term cognitive function. But this evidence can’t be generalised to computerised “brain training” programs. Engaging in mentally stimulating activities in a social setting may also contribute to the success of cognitive training.

2. Maintain social contact
More frequent social contact (such as visiting friends and relatives or talking on the phone) has been linked to a lower risk of dementia, while loneliness may increase it.

Greater involvement in group or community activities also lessens the risk. Interestingly, size of friendship group appears less relevant than having regular contact with others.

3. Manage weight and heart health
There is a strong link between heart and brain health. High blood pressure and obesity, particularly during midlife, increase the chances of dementia. Combined, these conditions may contribute to more than 12 per cent of dementia cases.

In an analysis of data from more than 40,000 people, those who had type 2 diabetes were up to twice as likely to develop dementia as healthy people.

Managing or reversing these conditions through the use of medication and/or diet and exercise is crucial to reducing dementia risk.

4. Get more exercise
Physical activity has been shown to protect against cognitive decline. In data from more than 33,000 people, those who were highly physically active had a 38 per cent lower risk of cognitive decline compared with those who were inactive.

Precisely how much exercise is enough to maintain cognition is still being debated. But a recent review of studies looking at the effects of doing exercise for a minimum of four weeks suggested that sessions should last at least 45 minutes and be of moderate to high intensity. This means huffing and puffing and finding it difficult to maintain a conversation.

5. Don’t smoke
Cigarette smoking is harmful to heart health, and the chemicals found in cigarettes trigger inflammation and vascular changes in the brain. They can also trigger oxidative stress, in which chemicals called free radicals can cause damage to our cells. These processes may contribute to the development of dementia.

The good news is that smoking rates in Australia have dropped from 28 per cent to 16 per cent since 2001.

6. Seek help for depression
Around one million Australian adults are living with depression. This illness can lead to changes in the brain that may affect dementia risk. High levels of the stress hormone cortisol have been linked to shrinkage of brain regions that are important for memory.

Vascular disease, which causes damage to blood vessels, has also been observed in both depression and dementia. Researchers suggest that long-term oxidative stress and inflammation may also contribute to both conditions.

Do you already follow these guidelines? Does the risk of dementia prey on your mind?

Related articles:
Dementia linked to medication
Exercise your way to mental health
The loneliness curse

Written by Janelle Ward


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