Powerful Risk Factors That May Prevent One-Third of Dementia Cases

Although dementia research has certainly evolved, the concept of being able to prevent this condition still seems quite foreign to the general public.

A new report, however, has uncovered potential preventative measures, focusing on non-medical interventions. By addressing key lifestyle factors, the researchers believe that one in three cases of dementia could be prevented.

Encouraging Report Presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference

Recently published in The Lancet, it’s been found that managing key lifestyle factors could potentially prevent one-third of global dementia cases. Although research has focused on developing preventative medications, in the meantime, we cannot lose sight of our lifestyle choices.

After 24 international experts reviewed existing data and research, they identified nine critical risk factors. This report was based on evidence-based recommendations in relation to both preventing and treating dementia. Considering approximately 35 percent of cases are attributable to the following risk factors, this report is certainly encouraging:

  • The incidence of dementia could be reduced by up to 20 percent by increasing education in early life, in addition to addressing obesity, hearing loss and hypertension in middle age.
  • Later in life, not smoking, treating depression, increasing the amount of physical activity, managing diabetes, and increasing social contact, could reduce one’s risk by an additional 15 percent.

Based on this report, reducing these risk factors, could essentially lessen the global burden of this degenerative condition — and that is exciting!

What About Treating Dementia?

In terms of treatment, nothing is more beneficial than preventative measures, but what about those who have already been diagnosed with dementia? Are there any non-pharmacologic approaches that experts currently recommend?

According to this panel of experts, various interventions could help address dementia treatment, especially in terms of aggression and agitation. This is because the current antipsychotic drugs that are used to address these symptoms, increase one’s risk of complications, including an increased risk of death, excessive sedation, and negative cardiovascular effects.

An example would be the benefits of social contact, being superior to these antipsychotic drugs when treating dementia-related aggression. Cognitive stimulation therapy was also shown to benefit cognition as well.

Key Messages to Take Away From This Report

As stated within this report, here are the key messages that you should review:

  • Although the incidence of dementia has decreased in some countries, the rate continues to increase globally.
  • Individuals between the ages of 45 and 65 years, should actively treat hypertension. For those who are over 65 and do not currently have dementia, hypertension is a strong risk factor. In order to be proactive, focus on factors such as obesity, smoking, exercise, and diabetes.
  • Alzheimer’s patients and individuals who showcase dementia with Lewy bodies, should be offered cholinesterase inhibitors at all stages. These drugs are not effective when addressing mild cognitive impairment.
  • Dementia care needs to be customized based on individual and cultural needs and preferences. In addition, family caregivers need to be offered greater support, as they are at high risk for depression and burnout.
  • Approximately one-third of older adults passes away with dementia, so in terms of end-of-life care, this needs to be considered in terms of decisions and one’s ability to express their needs.

Reviewing These Nine Key Risk Factors

In order to provide greater detail regarding the nine factors discussed above, here is what the report had to say about each individual factor:

  • Education — Less education is associated with a higher risk of dementia. This is based on the prediction that less education, results in less cognitive reserve. At this time, it’s still unknown if education after secondary school is additionally protective.
  • Hearing — Being a relatively new finding, even mild hearing loss can increase one’s long-term risk of cognitive decline. Based on the average age in terms of onset, this is considered to be a midlife risk factor. This association is not yet clear, but it’s believed that hearing loss may leave the brain more vulnerable to changes, based on social disengagement or even depression.
  • Exercise — Older adults who exercise have been shown to maintain cognition in comparison to those who do not. While focusing on older adults with dementia, exercise has also been shown to improve balance, improve mood, reduce falls, reduce mortality, and improve overall function.
  • Diabetes, hypertension and obesity — All three of these risk factors have been shown to negatively affect the heart and brain. While focusing on insulin resistance, for instance, this results in higher concentrations of peripheral insulin. Linked to inflammation and a decrease in brain insulin production, amyloid clearance may be impaired.
  • Smoking — Likely due to the relation between our heart and brain, cigarettes also contain neurotoxins. Overall, rates of smoking have reduced in most countries, however, there appears to be increasing rates within the eastern Mediterranean and Africa.
  • Depression — Research has often questioned whether or not depression is a symptom of dementia or a risk factor. Biologically, it’s plausible that depression increases one’s risk of dementia based on its effect on neuronal growth factors, stress hormones and hippocampal volume.
  • Social contact — Social isolation may play a key role in dementia, in addition to one’s risk of heart disease, depression and hypertension.

The researchers also noted that those who consume a Mediterranean diet (with a low intake of meat and dairy, along with a high intake of fish, fruit and vegetables, display fewer risk factors in relation to inflammation, vascular issues, insulin resistance, and more.

Although dementia-related research continues, this report was an encouraging start in terms of lessening the global burden. The factors discussed above are within our control — and that’s something to celebrate. We may not fully understand dementia, and more specifically Alzheimer’s, but it’s clear that our everyday choices impact our future health.

It’s time to start building new, sustainable habits — and there is no better time than today. Love yourself enough to live a healthy, happy life — you can take positive action. Review the risk factors above, actively improving your current lifestyle, in order to protect yourself for years to come.

Krista Hillis has a B.A.Sc degree, specializing in neuroscience and psychology. She is actively involved in the mental health and caregiving community, aiming to help others. Krista is also passionate about nutrition and the ways in which lifestyle choices affect and influence the human brain.

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