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How to reduce your risk of dementia

Dementia is set to become the 21st century’s biggest killer, with someone in the UK developing dementia every three minutes. Here, the Alzheimer's Society shares seven ways to reduce your dementia risk

by Ellen Tout

Alzheimer's Society are keen to highlight that there are things you can do to help reduce your risk of developing dementiaresearch from the University of Cambridge suggests that one in three cases of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, could be preventable if everyone changed their lifestyle to reduce their risk factors.

As the charity urges the public to Unite Against Dementia through its major new campaign, we hear from Dr Tim Shakespeare, the charity’s research communications officer, with his top tips and tricks for reducing your risk of developing dementia.

Stay active!

Keep active for at least 30 minutes, five times a week, because regular physical exercise in middle-aged or older adults reduces the risk of developing dementia. You’ll need to be active enough to raise your heart rate and get a bit out of breath, so you could walk, cycle, swim or join an exercise or dance group.

It’s not just about reducing your dementia risk; one recent study suggests that supervised programmes of aerobic and resistance exercise can help people in their 50's also improve their thinking skills.

Don’t smoke

If you already do smoke, try to stop. By smoking you are at a greater risk of developing dementia and harming your lungs, heart and circulation. If you want to stop smoking, talk to your GP and they can refer you to an NHS Stop Smoking Service.

report from Alzheimer’s Disease International in 2014 reviewed 14 studies on smoking and dementia and found that people who smoke are at higher risk of dementia than those who have never smoked. Interestingly, people who used to smoke and have stopped had a similar risk to people who had never smoked.

Eat a healthy, balanced diet

Try to eat a healthy, balanced diet with a high proportion of oily fish, fruit, vegetables, unrefined cereals and olive oil, and low levels of red meat and sugar. Research suggests that these sorts of foods, together called the Mediterranean diet, could reduce the risk of dementia by affecting the vascular system and reducing cardiovascular disease, which in itself is a risk factor for dementia.

It is also thought that the Mediterranean diet could reduce the risk of dementia by reducing inflammation. I would also suggest trying to cut down on saturated fat (eg: cakes, biscuits, most cheeses) and limit sugary treats, as well as keeping an eye on your salt intake too, because too much salt can raise your blood pressure and risk of stroke.

Limit alcohol 

Keep your alcohol within recommended limits and remember that these limits changed in 2016. The NHS recommended limits are now a maximum of 14 units each week for men and women, spread over three or more days, although lower limits have been suggested for older people because their bodies handle alcohol differently. 14 units is the same as four or five large glasses of wine, or seven pints of beer or lager with a lower alcohol content.

Take control of your health

If you’re invited for a regular mid-life health check by your doctor, be sure to go. It’s like an MOT for your body and will include a check of your blood pressure, weight and maybe cholesterol level. These are linked to dementia and conditions that are strong risk factors for dementia (heart disease, stroke and diabetes).

Keep to a healthy weight

Keeping to a healthy weight will also reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, and hence probably of dementia. A good place to start is to follow the advice on exercise and diet. Keep a diary of your food intake and exercise for each day, and remember that alcohol contains hidden calories.

Give your brain a daily workout

If you can keep your mind active, you are likely to reduce your risk of dementia. This could be reading, playing cards or learning something new, like a foreign language.

Research conducted by Alzheimer’s Society tested the impact that ‘brain training’ had on people over the age of 50. Brain training activities are those that are designed to challenge the brain and range from crosswords and Sudoku puzzles to bespoke computer games. The study found that using this brain training package resulted in improvements in reasoning and remembering words after six months, and that the more the exercises were completed, the more likely participants were to see improvements in these brain functions.

Keeping socially engaged and having a good social network may also reduce your dementia risk. Visit people or have them visit you, join a club or volunteer.

To find out more about Alzheimer’s Society’s United Against Dementia campaign, go to www.alzheimers.org.uk.

Photograph: iStock