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What can I do to reduce my risk of dementia?

According to the NHS, there is no certain way to prevent all types of dementia and researchers are still investigating how the condition develops
What can I do to reduce my risk of dementia? Image credit: Kamila Maciejewska / Unsplash

Dementia Action Week starts on Monday May 17, a national event that encourages people to take action and recognise the devastating impact of dementia.

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe many different conditions affecting the brain. The most common form is Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for around 60 per cent of diagnoses in the UK. 

Worldwide some 50 million people live with dementia, with this number projected to increase to 152 million by 2050. Those who live in low-income and middle-income countries are thought to be at particular risk. 

According to the NHS, there is no certain way to prevent all types of dementia and researchers are still investigating how the condition develops.

But the health service and charities say there are things people can do to reduce their risk of developing a progressive neurological disorder.

“What we’re certainly learning is that there are things you can do from a very early age to decrease your risk of getting dementia,” said Dr Karen Harrison Dening, head of research and publications at Dementia UK.

“Eating healthily, exercising, getting a good night’s sleep, keeping socially active, keeping mentally active, all of these are protective factors.

“It may not absolutely stop you getting dementia, but we do know it reduces the chances.”

Here are some of the things you can do to remain healthy until old age. 

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What are dementia risk factors?

Put simply, a risk factor is something that increases your likelihood of developing dementia. 

The NHS says that while there are some dementia risk factors that can’t be changed, such as age, genes or lower levels of education, there are things that can be done to reduce the risk of overall. These include:

  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • Maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly 
  • Keeping alcohol within recommended limits
  • Not smoking
  • Keeping your blood pressure at a healthy level

In July 2020, new research suggested there are 12 factors in total that increase the risk of dementia and suggested measures that could be taken to reduce this.

“We can reduce risks by creating active and healthy environments for communities, where physical activity is the norm, better diet is accessible for all, and exposure to excessive alcohol is minimised,” said lead author Professor Gill Livingston from University College London. 

Adopting a healthy diet 

A diet high in saturated fat, salt and sugar can increase the risk of high blood pressure, according to the NHS. 

Keeping blood pressure at a healthy level is something individuals can do to avoid dementia. 

A healthy, balanced diet can reduce the risk of becoming overweight or obese, as well as type 2 diabetes. 

The NHS Eatwell Guide shows how much of what we eat overall should come from each food group. 

At the moment, however, many are not eating enough fruit and vegetables, which should make up over a third of the food we eat each day.

“Our bodies are like organic machines, they need looking after, they need feeding the right fuel,” said Dening.

“The same as a car engine, you look after the engine, you keep it well maintained, you put the right petrol and oil in, and you’ll get the best out of that machine.

“And our bodies are the same thing really.”

Reducing alcohol intake 

The authors of The Lancet research highlighted excessive alcohol intake as another risk factor that can increase the likelihood of dementia. 

Alcohol could be associated with 1 per cent of all dementia cases, they added. 

The experts recommended preventing alcohol misuse and limit drinking to less than 21 units per week.

Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol increases your risk of stroke, heart disease and some cancers, as well as damaging your nervous system, including your brain.

The NHS says people should stick to the recommended limit of drinking no more than 14 units of alcohol a week for both men and women.

And if you regularly drink 14 units a week, you should spread your drinking over three or more days and have “alochol-free” days in the week.

Dening said managing your alcohol intake and not being excessive was good for your health.

Not smoking 

Smoking causes your arteries to become narrower, which can raise your blood pressure and increase the risk of dementia, according to the NHS.

It also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, which involves the heart or blood vessels, as well as several types of cancer.

Another recommendation from The Lancet was for policymakers to focus on reducing smoking by stopping smoking uptake and supporting individuals to quit. 

“National policies addressing dementia risk factors, like primary and secondary education for all and stopping smoking policies, might have the potential for large reductions in dementia and should be prioritised,” said the report’s co-author Professor Adesola Ogunniyi, from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. 

The NHS says that if you smoke you should try to quit. You can get support by visiting the NHS Smokefree website

Exercise 

All health experts agree that exercise is essential for making sure your body is fit, healthy and ready to keep a whole host of conditions at bay. 

When it comes to dementia specifically, the experts say people should attempt to lead an active life into mid later life if possible to reduce the risk of obesity and diabetes. 

The NHS says you should check to see if your weight is within the healthy range using their healthy weight calculator. If you are overweight or obese then even losing 5 per cent to 10 per cent of the excess weight can help reduce your risk of dementia.

In the UK, adults are encouraged to follow the recommended guidelines and do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, such as brisk walking, cycling or dancing. 

Alzheimer’s Society add physical activity is “one of the best ways” to reduce your risk of dementia because its good for your heart, circulation, weight and mental wellbeing.

They also recommend resistance activities that require strength and work your muscles twice a week, such as digging in the garden or push-up exercises. 

Another important thing, particularly for people in non-manual desk jobs, is to sit less and move around regularly. This could mean taking the stairs, walking up escalators or making phone calls while standing up. 

Social and mental activity 

While the relationship between dementia and depression is “complex”, the NHS says that it appears untreated depression can increase your risk of developing dementia. Depression can also happen as part of the overall symptoms of dementia itself.

The NHS explains that having a low mood or suffering from anxiety or depression can affect your ability to be socially active and engage in mentally stimulating activities – things that are key when both preventing and living with dementia.

“I think maintaining social connections and being mentally active are probably different things,” said Dening.

“Keeping yourself mentally active is about doing things to exercise your brain, such as reading a lot. It’s about puzzles, it’s about all of the things that test and exercise our thinking powers.

“Being socially active is known to be an essential part of managing risks of getting dementia. There’s nothing worse as you get older than being less interactive, more socially isolated and withdrawn, because we all need social stimulation and engagement.”