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Can you prevent dementia?

An estimated 459,000 Australians live with dementia, according to Dementia Australia. Dementia, which is the term used to describe the symptoms of a large group of illnesses (including Alzheimer disease) that cause a progressive decline in a person’s functioning, mainly affects older people and is characterised by a deterioration of memory, thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday activities. Unfortunately it has no cure.

As for what causes dementia, experts don’t fully understand what’s happening in the brain and body.

The good news is that you can play a part in reducing your risk. We know health and lifestyle choices contribute to 30–50% of dementia cases, and there’s good evidence that adopting healthy lifestyle habits can help reduce your risk of developing dementia as you age.

“If the whole population adopted healthier lifestyles, we could see large delays in cognitive decline and dementia that would translate into fewer cases of dementia in old age,” says Professor Kaarin Anstey, senior principal researcher at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) and UNSW Sydney.

Here are some of the most important risk factors for dementia – and how simple lifestyle changes can help reduce your risk and improve your health problems:

Smoking

Dementia risk: Smoking increases your risk of heart disease, which puts people at risk of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia – the most common types of dementia. In fact, a 2017 study showed smoking is responsible for 5.5% of the risk of developing dementia.

What you can do: "It’s best to avoid habits like smoking that can damage our vascular health because what’s good for our heart is good for our brain," says Maree McCabe, CEO of Dementia Australia. The great news is research shows former smokers no longer have an increased risk of dementia. Speak to your GP about getting help to quit.

Physical activity

Dementia risk: Not doing enough physical exercise can increase your risk of heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes – all risk factors for dementia.

What you can do: Guidelines for GPs to help reduce dementia rates in Australia prescribe exercise, revealing that higher levels of physical activity in middle age are associated with a 20-40% reduction in dementia risk.

It’s recommended that Aussie adults do at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercisemeaning you’re working hard, but not too hard – most days of the week. Across the week, you should aim to accumulate 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, or 75–150 minutes of vigorous activity. The national guidelines also recommend muscle-strengthening exercises twice a week.

"If you are physically active, then you are less likely to develop diabetes and high blood pressure, which are two key risk factors for dementia," says Prof Anstey. "Physical activity appears to have direct positive effects on the brain. It increases oxygenation and has been associated with the growth of new cells in the memory region of the brain."

Brain activity

Dementia risk: When was the last time you learned something new or did something mentally challenging like a tricky word puzzle? An under-stimulated mind can lead to poor brain health.

What you can do: Keep your mind active by taking on a new challenge like learning a foreign language, joining a dance class or reading the news every day. "Learning new activities helps strengthen the connections between brain cells and increase the volume of the brain," says McCabe. "The greater the volume of the brain, the longer dementia will take to progress."

Diet

Dementia risk: Eating too many foods high in sugar, salt and saturated fat, and low in fibre can increase your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and obesity – again, all higher risk factors for dementia.

What you can do: "A healthy diet, which includes green leafy vegetables daily and berries twice per week, fish at least once per week and minimal processed food, contains polyphenols and other nutrients that are neuroprotective," says Prof Anstey. There’s also evidence that the Mediterranean diet, which features lots of fresh fruit and vegies, legumes, unrefined grains, olive oil, and a moderate intake of fish, eggs, chicken and dairy, is associated with a reduced risk of dementia.

And if you’re able to lose a little weight in the process, even better, says McCabe. "Keeping a healthy weight is something that reduces our risk of developing dementia," she says.

Social interaction

Dementia risk: Social interaction helps reduce feelings of loneliness and depression – both risk factors for dementia – and may also reduce our risk of cognitive decline. So spending time with friends or family is a good way to maintain good cognitive health.

What you can do: Find ways to be social in your everyday life, even during these strange times. If you work in an office organise a virtual group morning tea, catch up with friends or join a group activity on a video call. "Being socially engaged is really important, because we know social isolation can lead to depression," says McCabe.

If you are feeling depressed or anxious and need to talk to someone right now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Words by Angela Tufvesson
First Published April 2020

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