Around 850,000 people in the UK have dementia, of which approximately 62 per cent suffer from Alzheimer’s. And while it’s still commonly assumed Alzheimer’s is a genetic illness – when actually only 1% of cases actually are – you can take steps to reduce your risk of developing dementia.
“There are rare forms of dementia where a genetic mutation makes it almost certain that a person will develop dementia, but only a few hundred families around the world are affected in this way,” explains Dr David Reynolds, Chief Scientific Officer of Alzheimer’s Research UK. “For most of us, the risk of developing dementia is down to a complex mix of age, genetics and lifestyle, and research is unravelling how all these factors are linked.”
Age is the largest risk factor for developing dementia but this doesn’t mean it’s a natural part of getting older. Our genetic make-up also contributes to our dementia risk, and researchers have identified versions of certain genes that are linked to an increased risk. Having these risk genes doesn’t necessarily mean you will develop the condition as there are many other factors at play – which means you have some control over whether you develop the disease in the same way we can influence the development of heart disease and certain cancers with our lifestyle choices.
Recent research suggests that the number of dementia cases would fall by around a third if it were possible to eliminate health conditions and lifestyle factors that contribute to risk. “This statistic highlights the broad potential for dementia risk reduction across the nation, but at an individual level, everyone is different and there is no sure-fire way to prevent the condition,” says Dr Reynolds. “Many of things that doctors tell us to do to control our risk of heart disease are also associated with a reduced risk of dementia. Not smoking, eating a healthy diet, staying mentally and physically active, only drinking within the recommended guidelines and keeping blood pressure and cholesterol in check, can all play a role in supporting brain health into old age.
Regular physical exercise can be beneficial for many health conditions, and current research is examining whether it has a direct effect on reducing the risk of dementia. But all indications are that exercise is good for your brain in the same way it’s good for our heart. And it’s an easy change to introduce into your daily life.
“Being active needn’t mean running marathons, finding an activity you enjoy and are more likely to stick with is more beneficial, and can include things like a brisk walk, cycling or swimming,” says Dr Reynolds. “While it’s still unclear what type of exercise is most beneficial, and at what stage of life, it is clear that keeping active throughout life is important.
Taking part in physical exercise is also a good opportunity to stay socially active, which is important when trying to reduce your dementia risk. It’s never too late to begin exercising if you are not already active!” Aim for at least 30 minutes exercise five times a week of anything which increases your heart rate and causes you to breathe more deeply. This includes everyday activities such as walking, gardening or dancing, as well as sports and exercises with the specific aim of improving fitness.
There is increasing evidence that what you eat can affect your likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s. Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago developed a diet plan called the MIND diet, which in trials reduced the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by as much as 53 percent. Even those who didn’t stick to the diet perfectly but followed it moderately well reduced their risk of Alzheimer’s by about a third. The plan itself was a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet which is aimed at reducing hypertension.
“Eating a healthy, balanced diet which includes lots of oily fish, vegetables, fruit and low levels of red meat and sugar will help reduce your risk of dementia and heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes,” advises Amy Morris, naturopathic nutritionist. “Try to cut down on trans fats, like cakes, biscuits, cheeses, and limit sugary treats. To protect yourself from Alzheimer’s and support brain health, I recommend a diet high in omega 3 which includes oily fish, like mackerel or salmon, nuts, seeds and eggs.” A 2015 University of Oxford study found B vitamins may protect against age-related brain wasting – but only in those with high omega-3 levels. Likewise, it’s believed the benefits of omega-3 are greater for those with a good vitamin B status.
Keeping a check on your cholesterol level is also important as high cholesterol has been found to linked to Alzheimer’s. Cholesterol in the brain speeds up the formation of protein plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease by 20 times, a study by Cambridge University found.
As well as keeping your body active, your brain should stay busy too. Reading, doing puzzles, word searches or crosswords, learning a language or skill all help keep our brains working and research shows this reduces Alzheimer’s risk too. Keeping socially engaged and having a good social network may also reduce your dementia risk too so taking up an activity like dancing is fantastic as you are using your brain to learn the steps, working up a sweat and making social connections too.
“Research suggests that keeping the brain active may help boost ‘cognitive reserve’, a kind of mental resilience that allows people to keep functioning for longer, when disease processes get underway in the brain,” explains Dr Reynolds. “What’s important is that it is something you enjoy and do regularly.”
Scientists have found that brain activities stimulate new connections between nerve cells and may even help the brain generate new cells, developing neurological ‘plasticity’ and building up a functional reserve that protects against future cell loss.
So take action now to reduce your Alzheimer’s risk, because you can make a difference.
For more information and guidance with Alzheimer’s please see the Alzheimer’s Research website.