The risk of cognitive decline and dementia increases with age. And while age is the biggest risk factor, and genetics also play a part, there is increasing evidence for a link between dementia and lifestyle habits. So, rather than seeing declining cognitive function as an inevitable part of ageing, we should consider our brain health as yet another good reason to improve our lifestyle habits.
While usually diagnosed later in life, the disease processes contributing to dementia occur over several decades. This is a reason to take action now, and the news is that the lifestyle changes that are good for our brain are the same healthy habits that are important for reducing the risk of other chronic health problems like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
While we can’t change getting older, genetics, or family history, building healthy lifestyle habits can help to keep a brain healthy at any age and can reduce the risk of developing dementia, particularly as we get older.
Dementia Australia recommends focusing on the following three areas to reduce your risk:
- Look after your heart. Heart and blood vessel disease not only increases the chances of having a heart attack or stroke but is also one of the biggest contributors to dementia risk. That’s because healthy blood vessels are important for carrying blood to the brain and when blood vessels are damaged, this can reduce blood flow to the brain. So managing risk factors, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, not smoking, exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet, is as important for your brain as it is for your heart.
- Look after your body. This includes eating a healthy diet, being physically active and optimising your sleep. Looking after your hearing and protecting your head from injuries are also important to protect your brain. Age-related hearing loss is associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline, cognitive impairment, and the development of dementia. Use of hearing aids, where needed, is associated with a reduced risk of dementia.
- Look after your mind. Just like you need to continue increasing the intensity of your exercise to improve physical fitness, your brain needs to keep being challenged to function optimally. Addressing loneliness and depression is also important. Spending time with people whose company you enjoy and in ways that interest you can help to improve brain function and reduces your risk of dementia.
Wondering how much difference lifestyle habits can make to your brain health? A study of 2235 men in the UK who were followed over 35 years found that five healthy lifestyle factors were associated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia, as well as a reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke. These were exercising regularly, not smoking, eating a healthy diet (low in fat with three or more servings of fruit and vegetables each day), keeping a low body weight and having a low alcohol intake. Men who followed four or five healthy behaviours had a 64% lower risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.
And an Australian study of participants with subjective cognitive decline or mild cognitive impairment found that those who were supported to adopt a Mediterranean diet, increase physical activity and take part in online brain training had a lower risk score for Alzheimer’s disease and a significantly higher cognition score than the control group who were provided with education only.
You can find out more and download a free booklet on the looking after your brain by visiting: Dementia Australia: Risk Reduction