In the majority of cases dementia is caused by a mix of factors, called risk factors. Some of the risk factors, like our age and genetics, we cannot change. But there are steps we can take to look after our brain health, and to reduce our risk of dementia.
Just as we can protect other areas of our health, we can take steps to keep our brains healthy and reduce our risk of developing dementia later in life. Research has shown that our health in our 30s, 40s and 50s can have a particularly large impact on our dementia risk.
However, it’s never too late to start thinking about our brain health.
Reducing your risk of dementia
This book is for anyone interested in reducing their risk of dementia. You can download the booklet or contact us if you would like a hard copy version.
What is a risk factor?
A risk factor is something that increases your chances of developing a condition like dementia. Some of these, like our age and genetics, we can’t change.
However, research suggests that up to 40% of cases of dementia are linked to modifiable factors we can influence ourselves.
For those who would like to improve their brain health, here we look at some of the changes we can make to keep our brains healthy and to reduce our risk of developing dementia.
Risk factors for dementia we can't change
The biggest risk factor for dementia is age. The older we are, the more likely we are to develop a disease that causes dementia, but these diseases are not a normal part of ageing.
About two in 100 people aged 65 to 69 years have dementia, and this figure rises to 19 in 100 for those aged 85 to 89.
As dementia is so common, many of us will have a relative living with the condition – but this doesn’t mean we will get it too.
Our risk of dementia is made up of many complex factors, including our age, environment, lifestyle, health and whether we carry any risk genes. Many of us may have risk genes for diseases that cause dementia. While these genes may increase our chances of developing dementia, having them does not mean someone will definitely get the condition because there are many other important factors that affect our risk too.
Research has found that people who carry common risk genes for Alzheimer’s disease can still reduce their risk by looking after their brain health. Dementia rates were 32% lower in people with a high genetic risk of Alzheimer’s that had a healthy lifestyle, compared to those with a high genetic risk and an unhealthy lifestyle. This important finding suggests that lifestyle changes can benefit us regardless of our genetic risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Our ethnicity can also change our risk, with certain black and Asian minority ethnic groups having higher risk of developing conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes. These conditions can then increase the risk of developing dementia.
Can I reduce my risk of dementia?
Some people may find adopting these suggestions easier than others. But remember making even a couple of changes can go a long way to improve your health, and it’s likely you’ll be reducing your dementia risk too.
What is good four our hearts is good for our brain health! Looking after your health will help lower your risk of cardiovascular diseases, and your risk of dementia too.
For a healthy brain and heart:
- don’t smoke
- keep cholesterol and blood pressure under control
- be active daily and exercise regularly
- maintain a healthy weight
- eat a healthy balanced diet
- drink fewer than 14 units of alcohol per week.
Keeping physically active
Regular physical activity can have many health benefits, including the prevention and management of many long-term conditions, including dementia. It also helps to reduce stress and improve mental wellbeing. Being physically active can also help you to maintain a healthy weight, reducing your risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease which are also risk factors for dementia.
Being active doesn’t have to involve going to the gym or running a marathon. You are more likely to exercise more often if you find activities you enjoy doing. There might be activities you can take part in with other people, like walking, dancing or cycling. Keeping active with others can make it an enjoyable a social occasion and is a good way to encourage each other to exercise more often.
Aim to be active every day. Try not to spend too long sitting, but if you have to, then break it up with movement or activity of any kind.
Eating a balanced diet
Eating too much saturated fat and sugar can increase our risk of cardiovascular diseases and dementia.
High fat and sugary snacks such as sweets, chocolate, biscuits, and fizzy drinks should be an occasional treat and only in small amounts.
The Eatwell Guide shows what a balanced diet looks like and can help you to make healthier food choices. It shows how much of the different food types you should eat to achieve a well-balanced and healthy diet.
Foods like sausages and other processed meats, butter and cakes can be high in saturated fat. Such foods can raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease and other health problems.
Some fat in our diet is important, particularly unsaturated fat found in oily fish, nuts, seeds, and avocados. Oily fish like salmon and sardines contain omega-3 fatty acids. While these are an important part of our diet, research is ongoing to see if the use of omega-3 supplements can help reduce the risk of dementia and is not yet conclusive.
Older people may have a smaller appetite and eat less. It may be harder to maintain a balanced diet with enough vitamins and minerals. You can speak to your doctor or a registered dietitian if you need advice about healthy eating.
Heavy drinking can damage our brain health and is related to an increased risk of many conditions including dementia, cancer, stroke and heart disease. The Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk guidelines recommend both men and women should not regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week. If you do drink, try to spread out alcohol consumption over at least three days, with several drink-free days each week.
Research has found a link between regularly drinking too much alcohol and an increased risk of dementia. Long-term heavy drinking is known to cause specific alcohol-related dementia, including Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS). WKS is caused by a lack of vitamin B1 (also called thiamine). Early treatment with this vitamin can reverse the symptoms, but without treatment and stopping drinking the condition can lead to permanent memory loss. If you are concerned about your alcohol consumption you can talk to your doctor for advice.
If you smoke, quitting is one of the most significant steps you can take in boosting your heart and brain health.
Smoking is linked to multiple medical conditions including cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
Getting help from your local stop smoking service can greatly boost your chances of giving up smoking successfully. The NHS Smokefree National Helpline is free to call on 0300 123 1044 or talk to your doctor for advice.
Find more on the NHS website.
It’s never too late to stop smoking, even in later life, quitting can reduce your risk of disease significantly.
Keeping your mind active
Research has found that that regularly challenging your brain and staying mentally active can help protect our brain health as we age, lowering our risk of memory and thinking problems.
Researchers think that mental activity helps to build your ‘cognitive reserve’. This is your brain’s ability to cope and keep working, even in the face of damage from diseases like Alzheimer’s.
It’s not clear which activities may be most beneficial but regularly doing things you enjoy, whether that’s reading, crosswords, singing or playing an instrument, will help to keep you mentally active.
Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to a higher risk of dementia, although research is still ongoing to understand why this relationship exists. Keeping socially active by spending time with other people or joining clubs can be a good way to feel happier, and more positive in life, and to look after our brain health.
Other medical conditions
There is evidence that the following conditions can increase the risk of dementia:
- Parkinson's disease
- type 2 diabetes
- high blood pressure
- hearing loss
- Down’s syndrome
- mild cognitive impairment (MCI)
Research has found that identifying and treating high blood pressure in midlife may reduce the risk of dementia. It’s important to have your blood pressure checked every five years if you are over the age of 40, you can have it monitored at your doctor’s surgery or at some pharmacies
Each year, 5-15% of people who receive a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) go on to develop dementia. However, many people with MCI find their memory problems do not get worse while others find their memory returns to normal.
Research has found a link between hearing loss in mid to late life and the risk of developing dementia. Hearing loss could be a risk factor in itself, or it could increase the risk of developing dementia by making it harder for people to stay connected to the world around them.
Some research has suggested that hearing aids may reduce this added risk, therefore it is important to have your hearing checked regularly from mid-life. The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) provide a free hearing check online.
Head injuries and dementia
Some research has suggested that a serious head injury, trauma or repeated concussion might increase the risk of developing dementia.
Research is ongoing to find out how brain injuries could lead to the development of diseases like Alzheimer’s.
There is a specific form of dementia associated with damage from repeated head traumas, called dementia pugilistica.
The term chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is also used to describe long-term damage to the brain caused by repeated head injuries. Several contact sports’ governing bodies are now undertaking research in this area and have introduced new safety measures in recent years.
NHS health check
The NHS Health Check is a free check-up of your overall health offered to those living in England and some areas of Scotland.
The check aims to support you to reduce your risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, stroke and dementia. If you are aged 40-74, and do not already have cardiovascular disease, you will be invited for a check-up every five years.
At an NHS Health Check, you will:
- be asked some simple questions about your health and family history.
- have your height and weight measured.
- have your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked.
The results from your Health Check will be shared with you along with advice to help you stay healthy.
If you are outside the age range for an NHS Health Check, you can use the Heart Age tool on the NHS website for advice about looking after your health. If you are over 75 you can request a Health Check from your doctor. If you live in an area not covered by the NHS health check and have concerns about your brain health or general health, you can talk to your doctor about how to address this. Some pharmacies also offer check-ups.
Alzheimer’s Research UK has funded over £7 million of pioneering research into the prevention of dementia. We have also launched a Prevention and Risk Reduction Fund to understand more about how people can reduce their risk of dementia.
This has funded a project investigating whether adults at high risk of cardiovascular disease, and therefore dementia, can be supported to adopt a healthier diet and become more physically active.
To read more about the studies we are funding, visit our research projects page.
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