One of the greatest health challenges of our time is dementia. In 2015 over 47 million people were suffering from this disease, estimations suggest tripling by 2050. In addition to the high annual costs that are associated with this long-term illness, the consequences for relatives – watching the slow decline and disappearance of a beloved person – are an incredible burden. According to a recent study, 40% of all dementia cases are preventable or at least could be delayed. Of course, some risks of dementia are genetic and not modifiable (currently), but still, most of us do have the opportunity to make changes that can be beneficial for our future and for healthy aging.
What are common risk factors for developing dementia?
The insidious thing about a disease such as dementia (or any illness related to aging) is that although it doesn’t show until you’re 65, it could’ve been treated 50 years earlier. It’s the same with your pension – you can’t start saving when you retire and the best time to start saving is always right now. It’s no different with your body – even if you’re young and healthy now, it’s necessary to act immediately and start investing in your health. Right now.
#1 Hearing loss
That hearing loss is recognized as a risk factor for dementia is fairly new. Yet it is only logical – the hearing-impaired person is more isolated, is unable to participate in engaging conversations, and is becoming more and more passive even in a supportive community. The brain is not demanded and eventually stops working. Although the underlying mechanisms are not clear yet, distinct hearing has a huge impact on life quality and healthy aging.
#2 Limited Education
Spending only a limited time at school, especially in childhood and adolescence, is the second-highest risk factor for dementia. Low cognitive reserves rise the vulnerability to cognitive decline in old age. Lifelong learning and continuously challenging your brain and your abilities is key
Smoking is a widely spread phenomenon which is one of the reasons why it bares a huge risk. Smoking has an unfavorable influence on the cardiovascular system and hypertension. Furthermore, cigarettes contain neurotoxins that enter the brain through the bloodstream and damage it lastingly.
#4 Social Isolation and Depression
Social isolation and the loss of community contributes hugely to the reduction of mental functions. New impressions and memories, family experiences, and connection to a stable social environment protects against dementia in the long run.
#5 Little Exercise
Studies have shown an inverse relationship between physical exercise and the risk of dementia – and it’s not only good for preventing dementia but for all elderly (and younger) people. Regular exercise improves balance and stability, reduces the risk of falling, enhances mobility, and if exercises are performed in a sports group it’s also beneficial for a stable social environment.
#6 Diabetes and Obesity
Comorbidities like hypertension, type-2 diabetes, and obesity typically go along with increased risk for dementia – especially Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. Underlying mechanisms might be the high insulin and glucose blood levels, which can impair brain functioning, as well as the systemic inflammation that goes along with metabolic disorders.
Recommendations for preventing dementia
The use of antihypertensive drugs was found to be beneficial in the prevention of dementia. A blood pressure of 150/90 mm Hg should therefore not be exceeded for persons over 80 years of age.
A Mediterranean diet, especially with a high percentage of unsaturated fats (as can be found e.g. in olive oil or nuts), improved cognitive performance and thus also contributes to prevention.
Engaging in cognitively demanding and challenging activities and stimulating the brain in a varied way, reduced the risk of dementia.
Physical activity has an indirect influence on obesity and metabolic diseases (e.g. high blood pressure), and a direct influence on the brain, for example through increased blood circulation, neurogenesis and overall cardiovascular fitness,
Although there is not yet scientific evidence (longitudinal studies) that prove that social interactions can delay or prevent dementia, it is proven that people who live alone, were never married, are divorced or widowed, have an increased risk of all-cause dementia. Our social norms and our low tolerance for people with cognitive decline increases their isolation even more.
- Livingston (2017) Dementia prevention, intervention, and care. Lancet [390: 2673–734]
- Sofi (2011) Physical activity and risk of cognitive decline: a meta-analysis of prospective studies. J Intern Med. [269: 107-117]
- Hamer (2009) Physical activity and risk of neurodegenerative disease: a systematic review of prospective evidence. Psychol Med. [39: 3-11]
- Prince (2015) World Alzheimer report 2015. Alzheimer’s Disease International