Dementia is a devastating condition that affects over 55 million people worldwide, with this number expected to triple by 2050. While there is currently no cure for dementia, there is evidence that lifestyle interventions can play a critical role in reducing the risk of developing the disease.
Some of the most effective modifiable lifestyle factors for preventing or slowing the onset of dementia or cognitive decline are as follows:
- Physical activity: A rapidly growing body of literature strongly suggests that exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, may reduce cognitive impairment and dementia risk. Numerous studies documented a significantly reduced risk of dementia associated with midlife exercise and significantly reduced later risks of mild cognitive impairment. Exercise can help improve blood flow to the brain – during exercise, as the heart and lungs work overtime, the body drives more oxygen and blood to the brain, leading to elevated oxygenation, improved cerebral blood flow and brain angiogenesis — the growth of blood vessels. Higher levels of blood and oxygen in the brain lead to improved cognition and better function of the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain responsible for decision-making and reasoning.Aim to get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, such as brisk walking, most days of the week.
- Diet: A healthy diet is critical for maintaining brain health and reducing the risk of dementia. Numerous studies have praised the Mediterranean Diet as one of the healthiest for healthy brain ageing. Aim to eat a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein, and low in saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and processed foods. In particular, diets that are high in fatty fish, berries and other purple foods and dark leafy greens have been associated with a reduced risk of developing dementia.
- Not smoking: Smoking is associated with an increased risk of dementia. A 2019 Lancet Commission on dementia prevention ranked smoking as third among nine modifiable risk factors for dementia and is linked to an estimated 14% of dementia cases worldwide. A recent review of 37 research studies found that compared to never smokers, current smokers were 30% more likely to develop dementia in general and 40% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Smoking also increasesthe risk of developing other risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia such as stroke and high blood pressure.
- Keeping normal blood pressure: High blood pressure damages the vessels carrying blood to and around the brain; low blood pressure starves the brain of fresh blood and oxygen. Studies have linked both conditions to a higher risk of dementia. We know that blood pressure tends to rise as we age and having higher blood pressure, even in early midlife – our 40s – can increase our risk of dementia. A 2021 study published by the American Heart Association found that people diagnosed with hypertension as early as their mid-30s were 61 per cent more likely to present with smaller brains and develop some type of dementia within the following decade than those with normal blood pressure. The good news is that adopting a healthy lifestyle will help regulate your blood pressure.
- Controlling cholesterol: According to a study published in November 2022 in Scientific Reports, having high low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (often referred to as the “bad” cholesterol) is linked to an increased risk of all types of dementia. High cholesterol levels (hypercholesterolemia) increases the risk of both vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, although the magnitude of risk is higher for vascular dementia.Fortunately, improving your cholesterol levels and reducing your risks of dementia and diabetes are within your control – by adopting healthy lifestyle habits, you can slash your odds of developing dementia later in life.
- Blood sugar: Diabetes is a group of conditions in which there is too much glucose (a type of sugar) in the blood. Numerous research has shown that having diabetes increases a person’s risk of developing dementia by 10% compared to the general population. One reason is related to the effects that diabetes has on the heart, as heart health is related to brain health. When diabetes is not controlled, too much sugar remains in the blood.Over time, this can damage organs, including cells and blood vessels in the brain. Keeping blood glucose levels within the target range, and maintaining a healthy weight and blood pressure can reduce the risk of developing dementia.The information in Dementia Australia’s toolkit about early symptoms and reducing the risk of dementia may be helpful when supporting people with diabetes.
- Mental stimulation: Engaging in mentally stimulating activities, such as reading, playing games or learning a new skill, has been shown to improve brain function and reduce the risk of dementia. Aim to do something mentally stimulating every day, such as solving crosswords or playing chess.
- Social engagement: There is a vast body of work examining the effects of increasing social engagement opportunities among cognitively normal older adults. These studies have found promising outcomes such as increased social support, higher levels of social activity, reduced feelings of loneliness, and improved psychological well-being associated with increased social engagement. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that social engagement may be protective against cognitive decline and incident dementia.Try to stay connected with family and friends, volunteer, or participate in community activities.
- Sleep: Scientific evidence suggests that getting enough quality sleep is important for maintaining brain health. Sleep-wake disturbance is associated with poor cognitive functioning and several other adverse outcomes that increase dementia risk in older adults. A lower amount of deep sleep is associated with an increase in beta amyloid. This is a protein that has been found to accumulate in people with Alzheimer’s. When we get quality sleep, sleep functions like the brain’s plumbing system – it drains toxins and harmful proteins associated with many types of dementia and flushes them out through a process called the glymphatic flow. It’s also vital for consolidating our memories overnight, regulating our immune system and inflammatory responses and for the growth and integrity of our brain cells.Aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep each night and try to establish a regular sleep schedule to promote muscle recovery, boost brain function and reduce chronic disease risk. We know that can be easier said than done, but these expert tips can help optimize your routine and catch more zzz’s.
While there is no guaranteed way to prevent dementia, these lifestyle interventions can help reduce the risk of developing the disease and improve brain health. These interventions have also been found to reduce the risk factors associated with dementia, such as hypertension, obesity, and diabetes.
It’s never too early or too late to start making healthy lifestyle choices and incorporating these changes into your daily routine can help improve your overall health and general well-being.