September is World Alzheimer’s Month, a time when globally, campaigns aim to increase awareness of dementia and educate people about the associated risk factors. Dementia is a growing public health concern worldwide, with Alzheimer's disease being the most common form. This year’s global theme, “Never too early, never too late,” is centred around key risk factors and risk reduction, emphasizing their crucial role in delaying and potentially preventing the onset of dementia.
A risk factor is something that increases the chance of developing a disease. We can divide risk factors for dementia into two kinds: non-modifiable and modifiable.
Non-modifiable risk factors are ones that are outside of your control, like your age or your genetic makeup. Modifiable risks are ones that you can do something about, and recent research has shown that there are several actions you can take to promote brain health and delay or prevent cognitive impairment. These actions relate to modifiable risk factors that you can change through healthy lifestyle behaviours. We explore each in more detail below.
- Stay physically active: Studies have found that people who exercise the most throughout mid-life have the lowest chance of developing dementia when they get older. Both aerobic exercise (like running, jogging, or brisk walking) and resistance training (muscle strengthening exercises) have been linked with better brain function immediately after exercise, as well as over longer periods of time.
- Get sufficient sleep: Poor sleep can negatively impact cognitive function and may increase the risk of dementia. Get 7 to 9 hours of good-quality sleep on a regular basis for adults aged 18 to 64, and 7 to 8 hours for those 65 and older, with consistent bed and wake-up times.
- Maintain a healthy weight and eat well: Being overweight can directly impact your physical mobility and is linked to several medical complications, many of which can have an adverse effect on our brain health, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. People who are obese in midlife have an increased risk of dementia compared to those with healthy body weight. Eat a healthy, balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can support brain health. The Mediterranean diet has been linked to a lower risk of dementia. It emphasizes olive oil, nuts, fish, and plenty of antioxidants, which can help reduce inflammation and protect brain cells.
- Maintain cognitive engagement: Keeping your brain active and engaged is crucial. Research has shown that activities that incorporate both cognitive and physical activities provide the most benefit with respect to promoting brain health. For example, dance or tai chi involves the benefits of aerobic exercise and cognitive training to learn new sequences of movements that challenge a person’s memory, attention and visual-spatial abilities.
- Limit alcohol and don’t smoke: Heavy drinking is associated with brain changes, cognitive impairment, and dementia. People with alcohol use disorders have a higher risk of dementia, and they have an earlier onset as well. Studies have shown that smoking increases the risk of Alzheimer's disease and may increase the risk of other dementias.
- Maintain good blood vessel health: Because damage to the blood vessels in the brain can cause dementia or strokes, it’s very important to maintain good blood vessel health. You can do this by monitoring and controlling blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and diabetes. Managing these factors can decrease your risk of developing dementia, having heart attacks or strokes, and may play a key role in protecting brain health.
While there is no guaranteed way to prevent dementia, combining these evidence-based strategies can help reduce the risk and promote overall brain health. Some studies have shown that combining 4 or 5 of these healthy behaviours may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 60%.
There are also other important risk factors for dementia like hearing loss, so protecting your ears from noise exposure, getting your hearing tested, and wearing hearing aids if you need them, can also help to promote your brain health.
It's essential to consult with a healthcare provider for personalized advice and to stay informed about the latest research in dementia risk reduction.