Can you reduce your risk of dementia?
There are around 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK (according to NHS England), and as medical science advances and we’re able to treat more diseases, our population continues to live longer and the dementia crisis grows.
Old age is a predominant factor in developing dementia, and although we can’t halt the ageing process, we’re asking is there anything we can do to prevent the onset of this debilitating syndrome that affects thousands of people and their loved ones.
What is dementia?
Dementia is a syndrome that affects memory and general cognitive function. There are many different types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia which you may have heard of.
Memory loss is the most common and well-known symptom of dementia, but it can be one of many symptoms that include:
- Personality and behavioural changes
- Difficulty understanding
- Speech and language issues - they may no longer be able to understand words and have problems speaking
- Loss of mobility
- A decline in mental sharpness
Living with dementia means not being able to complete daily tasks, losing independence, and sometimes social relationships can deteriorate.
The symptoms of dementia can start off subtle with minor ‘forgetfulness’, and this can sometimes be passed off as old age. When a person loses the ability to take care of themselves, they may be a danger to themselves, and there is a noticeable change in their personality, this can indicate a more serious underlying cognitive condition such as dementia.
Dementia ranges in severity depending on how much it affects a person’s life. As it’s progressive, some people can live for many years and function to some extent, but there is no cure, only medication can help slow it down and there is treatment and support to help people manage the symptoms.
What are the risk factors for developing dementia?
It’s important to remember that in a lot of cases the risk of developing dementia can’t be controlled. Genetics and age are two of the biggest risk factors, there are certain genes that can cause dementia, but if you have these genes it doesn’t always mean you will definitely develop dementia, it just increases the risk.
Old age is the leading cause of dementia; the reason for this is the health problems associated with old age. High blood pressure, damaged blood vessels in the brain, the increased risk of developing a stroke, and a weakened immune system are all age-associated health problems that increase the risk of dementia.
An unhealthy lifestyle is another risk factor, particularly smoking and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. According to Alzheimer’s Society, smoking increased this risk by 30-50% in the findings from systemic reviews.
It makes sense that smoking and excessive alcohol use are risk factors for dementia given that these lifestyle habits have a direct link to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and stroke.
Other risk factors which cannot be controlled are ethnicity, gender and, to some extent, environmental and economic factors. Older women have a higher risk of developing dementia than men, although not by much. We do know that there are more women living with dementia, but this could be due to the fact that women are living longer than men.
Essentially, anyone who is at risk of health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes, has a higher risk of having dementia later in life.
What can you do to reduce your risk of dementia?
Whilst we have no control over genetics, family history, gender, and of course, ageing, there are things you can do to keep your brain active and healthy to give you the best chance of avoiding dementia.
Live a healthy lifestyle
A healthy diet, regular exercise, quitting smoking (if you smoke), and reducing your alcohol intake all help to prevent high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke - which in turn reduces the risk of dementia.
It’s never too late to give up smoking. In fact, your body can completely heal from cigarette damage within 1-5 years after quitting, and blood pressure and circulation improve within hours!
Quitting smoking can significantly reduce the chances of blood clots and stroke, which is important for preventing dementia.
Stopping smoking is the single most important thing you can do to improve your overall health now and in old age. If you’re struggling to quit there is lots of support out there, find a local free NHS stop smoking service near you for professional help. You can also try stop smoking aids such as NRT (nicotine replacement therapy) to help with the side effects of quitting.
Keep your brain active
Research shows that a lack of education and brain stimulation from a young age has a negative impact on ‘cognitive reserve’. Simply put, good ‘cognitive reserve’ means that the brain can better cope with disease.
Keeping your brain stimulated can improve your brain’s ability to cope with diseases and can help to reduce the risk of dementia in older age.
Education is important; keep your brain active by learning new things on a regular basis, taking part in brain training exercises, finding new interests, and challenging your brain whether that be in your job or hobbies.
Physical exercise and quality sleep are also vital for keeping your brain active and healthy.
Isolation and loneliness not only affect mood and how you feel about yourself, but they can lead to psychological and physical illnesses such as depression, stress, and anxiety. These conditions can negatively impact memory and cognitive function.
Being socially active not only keeps your brain active, and improves general wellness and quality of life, but it also means you’re less likely to develop mental health illnesses such as depression.
Not everyone is inclined to be socially active, some prefer to live solitary, but human interaction to some degree is important. If you have certain interests, join people who have similar interests as you, and if you can get out and about it’s important to do so to interact with people along the way.
Have regular health checkups
Keep on top of your health numbers - this includes your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, glucose levels, and body mass index (BMI). The more you know about your health, the better you can prevent problems before they arise.
If you suspect a problem, it’s important to speak to your GP as soon as possible. Many people who are experiencing symptoms of depression, for example, don’t seek help, and untreated depression can leave lasting damage to the brain later in life. If you think that you or a loved one is suffering from a mental disorder, encourage them to seek treatment and support.
What support is available for those who have been diagnosed with dementia?
Sadly, we can’t completely prevent the onset of dementia. If you or a loved one has had a diagnosis of dementia, it can be difficult to come to terms with it. Some may get a diagnosis early before symptoms have become debilitating, and having the knowledge of what is to come may be harder to deal with.
Your GP can provide the support you need to be able to live with dementia, this includes psychological support and medication to be able to manage the symptoms and improve your quality of life. Your local social services can also help with practical support to enable a person with dementia to function in daily life safely. This could be adapting your home to your needs, for example.
Here is a list of helplines that you can contact to get support from those who are experienced in the condition:
Alzheimer’s Society: 0333 150 3456
Dementia UK: 0800 888 66 78
Age UK: 0800 169 2081