There are currently 50 million people worldwide who struggle with dementia, and researchers project that this number will more than triple by 2050, reaching 152 million cases globally. While this sounds terrifying, there is still some good news.
According to a recent report, two out of every five dementia cases could potentially be prevented or delayed by certain lifestyle choices as well as government policies. The report is based on the previous nine risk factors listed by the Lancet Commission on Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias intervention, care, and prevention, and adds three new factors: air pollution, excessive consumption of alcohol, and traumatic brain injury.
Eric Larson, a senior investigator and author of the study, said just as people don’t have control over their genetics, those in their 40s can’t retroactively improve or change their socioeconomic circumstances in early life — but no matter the age, we all can, to varying degrees, make certain lifestyle choices to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
So, dementia isn’t necessarily preventable, but science has shown that certain things can significantly lower the risk. Here are 12 ways that could help delay or prevent 40% of cases of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
1. Education and Cognitive Health
Receiving more education in early life could lower your dementia risk. According to experts, the more we learn, the more we build up our “cognitive reserve”. You can think of “cognitive reserve” as your brain’s resistance to natural damage.
While synapses — the connections between brain cells — may falter due to sickness and aging, a high “cognitive reserve” may make you more resilient against illnesses.
Here’s the experts’ advice: Engaging in intellectual activities later in life may help maintain cognitive abilities. According to one study, people 65 and older who played games and read more were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
Another study found that people who participated in physical, social, and intellectual activities in midlife were more likely to boost cognition in old age.
2. Traumatic Brain Injury and Dementia Risk
Traumatic brain injury (TBI), a risk factor among seniors, is often caused by injuries suffered from sports, automobile accidents, and exposure to blasts. Severe TBI is associated with an abnormal level of tau proteins, which is a biomarker of Alzheimer’s. Several studies concluded that people 50 or older with a history of TBI face a higher risk of dementia than those who have never had TBI.
Meanwhile, it was found that falls are the major cause of TBI in older adults. Furthermore, older seniors with concussions are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
Here’s what you can do: To minimize the risk of falls, maintaining muscle strength (especially in the legs) and doing balance exercises are crucial. Also, look out for things in your house that may cause a trip, and avoid walking barefoot or with stockings on slick surfaces.
3. Hearing Loss and Dementia Risk
People with hearing loss in midlife face a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, scientists say. That’s also the case for older adults with hearing problems, except for those who use hearing aids.
You may think that something affects the brain when hearing loss or impairment is present, so that’s how the risk of dementia increases, but no. In fact, experts showed that difficulty hearing other people is socially isolating. This, along with the inability to engage with others in listening and speech, has a negative impact on brain reserve.
Here’s what you can do: In order to prevent hearing loss, experts advise people to avoid excessive noise. If you have hearing difficulties, you should seek testing and, if necessary, use a hearing aid.
4. High Blood Pressure and Dementia Risk
High blood pressure can lead to blood clotting, which obstructs blood flow to the brain. This significantly increases the risk of stroke as well as the loss of brain cells, and the brain could subsequently shrink.
According to several studies, middle-aged people with hypertension are at greater risk of facing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias later in life (some experts suggest that even those in their 30s with high blood pressure are at a higher risk of developing dementia later on).
Here’s what you can do: Most doctors recommend checking your blood pressure if you’re 40 or older. According to them, systolic blood pressure — the blood pressure against artery walls when your heart beats — should be 130 mmHg or less in midlife. But keep in mind that having overly low blood pressure is also dangerous.
Some of the ways that can help control blood pressure include maintaining a stable weight, exercising regularly, sleeping well, managing stress, refraining from smoking, and eating less added sugar.
5. Obesity and Dementia Risk
According to numerous studies, obese people are also at greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias later in life. Furthermore, some experts say obesity should be regarded as premature aging because it is strongly linked to cardiovascular problems in old age.
Adesola Ogunniyi, a professor of medicine at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, explained that obesity can lead to chronic heart diseases, which reduce blood flow and damage blood vessels in the brain. This causes a chain reaction of inflammation and oxidative stress, which would eventually kill the brain cells.
Here’s the experts’ advice: As you can guess, losing weight can help you prevent cardiovascular diseases, which in turn minimizes your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Doctors also recommend reducing sugary beverages, avoiding excess calories, exercising, and staying active.
6. Excessive Drinking Can Increase the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias
Andrew Sommerlad, a senior research fellow at University College London, says that excessive consumption of alcohol can lead to shrinkage of brain tissue, damaged blood vessels, and brain cells.
But that’s not all. According to one study, alcohol use disorder is a major risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, especially early-onset dementia, which affects people before the age of 65.
Here’s the experts’ advice: You may think that the best thing to do is to avoid alcoholic beverages. In fact, research suggests that drinking up to 210 milliliters of alcohol weekly could reduce the risk of dementia. So, alcohol isn’t that bad as long as you stick to a drink or two a week.
For people who are chronic drinkers, experts say reducing alcohol consumption a little each day by having lower-strength or smaller drinks is likely the safest and most effective strategy to cut back on the consumption of alcohol.
7. Smoking and Dementia Risk
We all know that smoking is bad. But what exactly does this bad habit do to our bodies? Well, smoking causes problems with blood vessel function, which means that a smoker is more likely to have small bleeds in the brain or strokes. According to doctors, chemicals in tobacco smoke can also lead to inflammation. All these things together eventually increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
Here’s the experts’ advice: Even if you’re a chain smoker, it’s not too late to quit smoking. In fact, older adults who stop smoking may significantly lower their risk of dementia. Using nicotine patches may help you, and it’s a good place to start if you need some help to stop smoking.
8. Loneliness and Social Isolation Can Increase the Risk of Dementia
Building social connections can boost your cognitive reserve. In other words, interacting with others and paying attention to them keeps our brains healthy and active.
Additionally, some research shows the opposite — social isolation — may increase the chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. According to one study, widowers and those who are lifelong singles are more likely to develop dementia compared to married couples.
Here’s what you can do: Experts recommend engaging in activities you like doing with others, such as chatting over coffee or food and going for a walk. The coronavirus shutdown has left many feeling socially isolated, but luckily this is a thing of the past now.
9. Depression and Dementia Risk
Doctors highlight that people who are developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are more likely to become depressed. But it appears that things can also go the other way, though researchers aren’t sure why depression is a risk factor for dementia. Some scientists suggest that depression may make the brain age faster and cause brain shrinkage.
Another thing that could explain why people with depression face a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias is that they are actually less likely to engage in brain-stimulating activities such as exercising and interacting with others.
Here’s the experts’ advice: Interacting with at least some people is definitely a good thing that can help with depression and reduce our risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Because the causes of depression differ from person to person, doctors recommend those with depression talk with their general practitioner to see whether medication or therapy would help.
10. Exercise for Cognitive Health
According to several studies, exercising regularly and staying physically active appear to prevent and delay the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Researchers believe that exercise may stimulate neurochemicals and the formation of neurons in the brain, boosting memory, learning, and mood.
No matter your age, it’s never too late to start moving and exercising, experts say. According to a recent study, seniors who increase their fitness are less likely to develop dementia.
Here’s the experts’ advice: Aim for 150 to 210 minutes of exercise per week. This can be a lot for some folks, but even 15 minutes of exercise three times per week may go a long way compared to being physically inactive. And you don’t have to be a marathon runner to stay active. The greatest danger is not doing anything, so you just have to do regular physical activity.
11. Air Pollution and Dementia
Air pollution doesn’t just harm our respiratory health: Emerging evidence shows air pollution exposure significantly increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. In fact, people who live close to freeways and major roads are more likely to develop dementia. Furthermore, some experts believe that exposure to air pollution may even cause brain inflammation.
Here’s the experts’ advice: Avoid going outside when air pollution levels are high, such as in instances of wildfires. Meanwhile, scientists urge legislative bodies to consider reducing traffic as well as the number of highways in residential areas and increasing people’s access to green spaces.
12. Diabetes and Dementia Risk
Diabetes is linked to several vascular problems, such as strokes and impairment of small blood arteries, which are in turn major risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Researchers believe that beta-amyloid plaques and the protein tau, the biomarkers of Alzheimer’s, may play a role in hyperglycemia.
However, more research is needed to explore biological mechanisms linking dementia and diabetes beyond those related to blood flow.
But one thing’s certain: people with type 2 diabetes are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. When cells fail to respond to insulin, the body produces more of it, resulting in overly high levels of blood sugar.
Here’s the experts’ advice: Researchers warn that Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes are reaching epidemic proportions; therefore, they urge people to get a good night’s sleep, manage their stress, eat a healthy diet, maintain a balanced weight, stay active, and exercise regularly.
You may also want to read 8 Mental Health Myths Every Senior Should Read.