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 early or late to start thinking about our brain health.
However, it’s never too late to start thinking about our brain health.
What is a risk factor?
A risk factor is something that increases our likelihood of developing a condition like dementia. Some of these, like our age and genes, 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.
For most of us, our risk of dementia is made up of many complex factors, including our age, environment, lifestyle, health and our genes. Many of us may carry common risk genes that slightly increase the risk of developing dementia – but the majority of these genes only increase this risk by a very small amount. So while the risk genes we carry might tip the balance towards dementia, carrying one doesn’t mean someone will definitely develop the condition, as other important factors affect our risk too.
People who carry common risk genes for Alzheimer’s disease can still reduce their risk. Research has found that dementia rates were 32% lower in people with a high genetic risk who 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 whether we carry a risk gene for Alzheimer’s disease.
Research is ongoing to find out whether this is the case for other types of dementia, such as vascular dementia. However taking steps to improve our brain health is still important and has wider health benefits too.
Our ethnicity can also change our risk. For example, some Black and Asian people have a 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 some of the suggestions in this booklet easier than others. But remember, even making 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 heart is also good for our brain health! That’s because the brain is heavily dependent on a good blood supply to remain healthy. Doing things to look after our health can help lower our risk of cardiovascular diseases, and our 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, such as helping to prevent and control many long-term conditions including dementia, as well as reducing stress and improving mental wellbeing. It can also help you maintain a healthy weight, reducing your risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease - which are themselves risk factors for dementia.
Being active doesn’t have to involve going to the gym or running a marathon. You are more likely to be physically active 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 is a good way to encourage each other to exercise more often and make it a social occasion.
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 the 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 eaten 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, contains omega-3 fatty acids. While these are an important part of a healthy diet, research is ongoing to see if taking omega-3 supplements has any effect on the risk of dementia.
A Mediterranean-style diet that is low in meat and dairy, but rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, cereals, beans, nuts, and ‘healthy’ fats like olive oil, has been linked to a range of health benefits including improved brain health. However, further evidence is needed to find out more about whether it can directly reduce dementia risk.
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.
You can find out more about alcohol-related cognitive impairment and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome here.
You can also find lots more information on the NHS website.
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 your brain health as you age, lowering your 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.
There is evidence linking 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:
- mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and thinking problems that are worse than those expected for someone’s age.
- high blood pressure
- hearing loss
- Parkinson’s disease
- type 2 diabetes
- Down syndrome
Managing existing conditions, or reducing your risk of some of these may also reduce your risk of dementia.
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 that managing 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 checked at your doctor’s surgery or at some pharmacies.
Research has found a link between hearing loss in mid to late life and 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.
People with and without dementia, as well as carers, have a vital role to play in helping scientists understand more about diseases like Alzheimer's, and to test new treatments, therapies and methods of diagnosis.
You can register to find out which research studies you may be suitable to take part in via Join Dementia Research.
You can also register your interest and find out more about what might be involved in a research study by clicking the button below.
Alzheimer’s Research UK has funded over £7 million of research into the prevention of dementia. This includes projects to better understand the link between sport, head injury and dementia risk. We have also funded one of the largest risk studies to date called, Insight 46. This project has followed a group of people since their birth in the same week in March 1946 to tease apart why some people may go on to develop dementia and others not.
To read more about the studies we are funding, visit our research projects page.
Our Think Brain Health campaign helps to turn research findings into practical steps that we can take to protect our brain health throughout life and help reduce our risk of developing dementia.
The campaign is built around three simple rules for better brain health; Love your heart, Stay sharp and Keep connected. So far, more than 1 million have visited our brain health hub so far.
But we will not stop there. With your support, we’re empowering people to reduce their risk of dementia, and investing in research to lead the search for a cure.
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