5 Lifestyle Changes that Reduce Dementia Risk
More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia, and this is expected to double before 2050(1). As there is currently no cure for dementia, taking steps to prevent its onset is vital, with researchers in the area focusing much of their work on risk factors for cognitive decline. One of their most recent findings, published in the September edition of the British Medical Journal, is that taking a group of drugs known as benzodiazepines to ease anxiety or insomnia appears to significantly increase your risk of cognitive decline, with just a 3 to 6 month course of these medications seeming to increase your risk by around one-third(2). With prescriptions of benzodiazepines increasing by around 12.5% each year and other concerns already raised about the safety of these drugs, it is an issue for both doctors and patients alike to consider(3). However, what measures can you take yourself to ward off or delay the onset of dementia?
Controlling Cardiovascular Risk Factors
Vascular dementia, the second most common form of cognitive decline, is caused by reduced blood flow to your brain and shares some of the same risk factors as heart disease and stroke. For instance:
- High levels of LDL cholesterol, the form that narrows your arteries and impairs your brain’s blood supply increases your risk of dementia, while taking statins to lower your cholesterol level is protective(4). Choosing a diet low in saturated fat and added sugars, while rich in fruit, vegetables and pulses can also promote a favorable cholesterol profile.
- High blood pressure damages the arteries that supply your brain, making them more susceptible to narrowing, while treatment to lower blood pressure can reduce dementia risk by close to 10%(5). Reducing your salt intake will bring down your blood pressure, as will opting for a diet rich in plant-based foods.
- High levels of homocysteine in your blood are also associated with cognitive impairment(6). These usually arise due to a deficiency of vitamin B12 and folate, so ensuring a good dietary intake of these B vitamins is essential.
Quit Smoking and Drink Moderately
Smoking isn’t just bad news for your heart and lungs; it can also make you more susceptible to dementia. Research shows that if you quit before old age you are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, though former smokers are still more likely to experience vascular dementia and other forms of the disease than people who never smoked(7), which is another reason why it is best to never take up the habit. However, when it comes to drinking alcohol, the evidence is less clear cut. While heavy drinking is known to adversely affect cognition, moderate amounts of alcohol in earlier life may protect against the onset of dementia later on(8). Further research is needed to confirm the findings in relation to moderate drinking and dementia risk, though it is important to be aware that this level of drinking is defined as no more than a single alcoholic drink each day for women and at most two daily for men.
Lose Excess Weight
More than two-thirds of us now have a body mass index greater than 25, which places us at increased likelihood of a range of chronic health problems, including dementia. Research shows that while a BMI of between 25 and 30 in middle age increases your risk of cognitive impairment by around a third, once your BMI is over 30 your risk is almost doubled(9) and there are several possible reasons why carrying extra body fat is an issue when it comes to dementia risk. Firstly, when you are overweight your cholesterol level and blood pressure are usually higher, which we have already seen are risk factors. Then there is the fact that extra weight, particularly when it is carried around your abdomen, makes you more susceptible to diabetes, which is another risk factor for cognitive decline, as high blood sugars also interfere with blood flow to the brain through the damage they cause to your blood vessels. Losing excess weight can help to protect your mental function and a combination of a well-balanced diet, portion control, changing your eating behaviors and taking daily exercise is likely to help you achieve lasting weight loss.
Protect Your Head
The immediate symptoms following a head injury, such as memory loss and confusion, are similar to those that occur in dementia and while these typically clear up, some head trauma can increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease(10). This is most likely following a severe head injury that causes you to lose consciousness, especially if you are unconscious for longer than 24 hours. However, even repeated mild head injuries may leave you more vulnerable to developing Alzheimer’s disease. While it isn’t always possible to prevent accidents, there are steps you can take to reduce their occurrence and protect your head in case you suffer a blow. For instance, around the home you can remove trip hazards, use a sturdy stepladder when completing DIY tasks and also clean up spills as soon as they occur. Meanwhile, a helmet is a must for cycling, horse riding, skiing and contact sports.
Embrace Social Interaction and Mental Stimulation
Although physical activity is vital for people of all ages, activities that encourage socialization and mental stimulation are just as important. Indeed, research shows that feeling lonely can increase your risk of developing dementia by more than 60%, though why this occurs is not yet clear, as these results were found even when depressed mood was taken into account, which is an independent risk factor(11). However, by having a wider social network and taking part in social activities this helps to stimulate your brain. Similarly, activities that challenge you mentally can help to keep Alzheimer’s disease at bay(12). Good examples of activities that help you to learn include reading, word puzzles, playing games(13), speaking a new language, taking up a musical instrument and visiting places of interest such as museums and galleries.
Even though there are some risk factors for cognitive decline that you can’t change, such as your advancing age, a family history of the disease, adopting positive changes to your lifestyle can protect your mental function, as well as offering additional health benefits besides.
- 1 “Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,” CDC, accessed September 12 2014
- 2 “Benzodiazepine use may raise risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” Harvard Medical School, accessed September 12 2014
- 3 “Trends in benzodiazepine prescription and co-prescription with opioids in the United States,” The American Academy of Pain Medicine, accessed September 12 2014
- 4 Y Song et al, “Association of statin use with risk of dementia,” Geriatrics and Gerentology International, 13(2013):817, accessed September 12 2014
- 5 Natacha Marpillat et al, “Antihypertensive classes, cognitive decline and incidence of dementia“, Journal of Hypertension, 31(2013):1073, accessed September 12 2014
- 6 “David Wald et al, “Serum homocysteine and dementia,” Alzheimer’s and Dementia, 7(2011):412, accessed September 12 2014
- 7 Kaarin Anstey et al, “Smoking as a risk factor for dementia and cognitive decline,” American Journal of Epidemiology, 166(2007):367, accessed September 12 2014
- 8 R Peters et al, “Alcohol, dementia and cognitive decline in the elderly,” Age and Ageing, 37(2008):505, accessed September 12 2014
- 9 Martin Loech & Harald Walach, “Midlife obesity and dementia,” Obesity, 21(2013):E51, accessed September 12 2014
- 10 S Fleminger et al, “Head injury as a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease,” Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry,” 74(2003):857, accessed September 12 2014
- 11 “Feeling lonely linked to increased risk of dementia in later life,” Science Daily, accessed September 12 2014
- 12 “Use it or lose it – preventing cognitive decline,” NYU Langone, accessed September 12 2014
- 13 “Computer games boost cognition,” KwikMed, accessed September 12 2014