Adopting seven healthy habits in middle age may help cut the risk of dementia, a long-term study suggests.
Experts found that being active, eating a better diet, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, keeping normal blood pressure, controlling cholesterol and having low blood sugar may all cut the chances of developing conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.
The study, which followed women for two decades, has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal and will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting in Boston.
“Since we now know that dementia can begin in the brain decades before diagnosis, it’s important that we learn more about how your habits in middle-age can affect your risk of dementia in old age,” says study lead Dr Pamela Rist, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.
“The good news is that making healthy lifestyle choices in middle-age may lead to a decreased risk of dementia later in life.”
The study involved 13,720 female participants with an average age of 54. After 20 years of follow-up, 1,771, or 13%, developed dementia.
For each of the seven health factors, participants were given a score of zero for poor or intermediate health and one point for ideal health, for a total possible score of seven.
After adjusting for factors such as age and education, the researchers found that for every increase of one point in the score, a participant’s risk of dementia decreased by 6%.
“It can be empowering for people to know that by taking steps such as exercising for a half an hour a day or keeping their blood pressure under control, they can reduce their risk of dementia,” adds Dr. Rist.
Dr Richard Oakley, associate director of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, says: “Although getting older is the biggest risk factor in developing dementia, this research has shown once again that there are things people can do to lower their risk. While several risk factors like age and genetics are outside our control, this preliminary study supports existing evidence that lifestyle factors play a role in dementia risk in women.”
Oakley points out a 2020 report that was part-funded by the Alzheimer’s Society collected evidence from hundreds of studies and found all the lifestyle factors in this new study (except controlling cholesterol, which wasn’t included), were risk factors for developing dementia.
“With the number of people living with dementia in the UK set to rise to one million by 2025, Alzheimer’s Society researchers are working tirelessly to find a cure,” stresses Oakley. “Until that day, people can take steps to reduce their risk with healthy habits and lifestyle factors.”
Here’s how the Alzheimer’s Society says you can reduce the risk of dementia…
1. Keep physically active Doing regular physical activity is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of dementia as well as being good for your heart, circulation, weight, and mental wellbeing, says Oakley. “It’s important to find a way of exercising that works for you. You might find it helpful to start off with a small amount of activity and build it up gradually.”
It’s recommended that each week, adults should aim for either 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, riding a bike or pushing a lawn mower, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, such as jogging, or riding a bike up a hill . Also build in some resistance activities that require strength twice a week. Speak to your GP if you haven’t exercised for some time, or if you have medical conditions.
2. Eat healthy “A healthy, balanced diet may reduce your risk of dementia, as well as other conditions including cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, stroke, and heart disease,” says Oakley. The Alzheimer’s Society recommends eating a balanced diet, including at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, starchy foods (ideally wholegrain varieties) such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta, and protein-rich foods, such as oily fish, beans, pulses, eggs, or meat, at least twice a week. Try to avoid eating too many sugary or high-fat foods, such as biscuits, cakes and sweets, and watch for hidden salt by checking the labels.
3. Don’t smoke As well as increasing your risk of dementia, smoking also increases the risk of other health problems such as diabetes, stroke and cancer. “If you smoke, you’re putting yourself at much higher risk of dementia,” explained Oakley. “Smoking does a lot of harm to the circulation of blood around the body, including the blood vessels in the brain, as well as the heart and lungs.” Talk to your GP or pharmacist about quitting smoking, and/or use NHS Smokefree support services (quitnow.smokefree.nhs.uk).
4. Drink less alcohol The Alzheimer’s Society recommends adults aim to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, ideally spreading it out evenly. Oakley says: “Drinking too much alcohol harms the cells in your brain and increases your risk of dementia.”
5. Exercise your mind Keeping your mind active helps to maintain mental skills, and Oakley says: “Find something you like to do that challenges your brain, and do it regularly. It’s important to find something you’ll keep up.” This could range from learning a new language, to doing puzzles, or crosswords. Talking to other people is also a great way to work your brain and keep it sharp.
6. Take control of your health The Alzheimer’s Society points out health checks are offered to anyone between the ages of 40-74 years at their local GP surgery, and Oakley says: “Your middle-aged years are an especially important time to start taking care of your health if you’ re not doing so already.
“It’s important to see your GP if you’re worried about health problems such as depression, hearing loss, or not getting enough sleep.
“All of these might increase your risk of getting dementia later in life.”