As part of Dementia Action Week, Michael Hornberger, professor of applied dementia research at Norwich Medical School, outlines the best ways to reduce your risk of developing dementia.
The older we get, the higher our risk of dementia. And while the chances of inheriting genetic dementia are extremely low, one in three of us will develop dementia in our lifetime. But there are ways we can mitigate our dementia risk significantly – if we make the right lifestyle choices.
Dementia describes progressive brain disorders that trigger a loss of brain function which can include symptoms such as memory loss, confusion and problems with speech and understanding. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common, but other types include vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies.
Michael Hornberger is professor of applied dementia research at Norwich Medical School. “With age, our memory naturally deteriorates,” he says. “People worry because they find themselves walking into the next room and have forgotten why they went there. We call these ‘attentional memory problems’ but they are usually nothing to worry about.
“What’s more worrying is when people start repeating questions or the same story over and over again or cannot remember recent appointments or events. These are warning signs and we recommend that they see their GP.”
Dementia occurs as proteins in our brain form clumps which become toxic to nerve cells. This can affect our episodic memory, whereby memories are not correctly created in the hippocampus and details cannot be remembered.
“Older memories are much stronger, but there is a problem creating new memories,” Michael explains. “Families often report that the person with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease seems to be living in the past because that’s what they can remember well.
“Alzheimer’s patients get very easily disorientated in unfamiliar environments. It means they have moments of hesitation before finding their bearings, but in the worst cases it can lead to people getting lost, injured or even dying.
“We’re also interested in how memory and orientation changes affect everyday life. For example, we are currently conducting a study titled DECISION, which investigates how these changes affect driving in ageing.”
So, what can we do to reduce our risk of developing dementia? Michael outlines seven risk factors. “If you address those, there’s strong scientific evidence that you can reduce your risk of dementia by up to 40pc.”
Lower your blood pressure
“We really need to keep our blood pressure and cholesterol in check,” Michael advises. “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain, so regular checks with your GP are important to monitor cardiovascular health. High blood pressure causes mini strokes that you don’t notice, but it can actually increase the accumulation of the proteins that cause dementia.”
Kicking the nicotine not only reduces your chances of heart disease, lung cancer and type 2 diabetes, but it will also cut your chances of developing dementia. “Stopping smoking makes a big difference no matter how old you are,” Michael says.
Reduce alcohol consumption
You can reduce your dementia risk by following alcohol consumption guidelines and consuming less than 14 units per week – ideally with three alcohol-free days each week. “Alcohol is a neurotoxin. It literally kills nerve cells, so we need to be careful with how much we drink.”
Eat a balanced diet
A balanced diet such as the Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce heart disease and improve brain health. “Food is medicine of a kind, and a balanced diet can really reduce our risk of dementia.”
Get physically active
Regular exercise not only improves cardiovascular, muscle and bone health, but benefits mental health and helps to reduce dementia risk. Even low impact exercises like walking, yoga or weeding the garden are effective. “Ideally, at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week is recommended to reduce dementia risk,” Michael says.
Keep your brain fit
It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks, and cognitive training is one of the best ways to stave off mental decline. “Please continue to do your crossword, but even better: learn something new.”
Social connectedness is another key factor for our brain health. “Join the choir, a knitting group, a men’s shed, play walking football – there’s so many options out there,” Michael says. “And if you can combine social activity with physical exercise and learning a new skill, then that’s even better!”
For more lay-friendly dementia information, please visit Michael’s blog at dementiascience.org