Despite how far medical science has advanced, dementia remains a terrifying, mysterious, and all-too-common condition. About 50 million people around the world suffer from dementia, and, in the next three decades, the World Health Organization expects that number to triple. While there’s still a lot that we don’t know about dementia, there are a number of things you can control to help lower your dementia risk.
Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s — What’s the Difference?
Alzheimer’s and dementia are sometimes used interchangeably, but they aren’t really synonymous. Dementia is a kind of catchall term for a range of neurological symptoms, including memory loss, changes in cognition, impaired judgment and reasoning, inability to focus, and difficulty with speech and language. Alzheimer’s is a specific type of dementia, responsible for over half of all cases, but not everyone with dementia has Alzheimer’s disease.
Risk Factors for Dementia
Though dementia is still fairly mysterious, experts have identified a number of risk factors. Some of them are unchangeable, like age, genetics, and education level — older people with a lower education level and a family history of dementia are more likely to develop it themselves. Other risk factors can be changed. By improving the risk factors that you can control, you can reduce your risk of dementia by as much as 30%. These include:
- Alcohol and tobacco consumption.
- Mental health.
Diet and Weight
A healthy diet can decrease your risk of a number of conditions, including heart attack, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. About 10-14% of patients who’ve had one stroke develop dementia, while about 30-50% of patients with recurrent strokes do. Diabetes is another contributing factor, especially for vascular dementia. In people with mild cognitive impairments, diabetes increases the likelihood that their condition will progress to dementia.
Obesity can also increase the risk of conditions that contribute to dementia. If you are overweight, even losing as little as 5-10% of your body weight can help reduce your risk of weight-related health conditions.
Low levels of folate (a B vitamin) are also linked to an increased risk of dementia. A high-fiber, low-gylcemic diet that includes folate-rich foods like leafy greens, asparagus, avocado, oranges, papaya, broccoli, and beans may help reduce the risk of a number of diseases, including dementia.
Just like an unhealthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of health conditions that contribute to dementia. Moderate intensity exercise improves cardiovascular health, blood pressure, blood sugar, and mental health, all of which lower the risk of dementia.
Mental exercise is just as important as physical exercise when it comes to avoiding dementia. Exercising the brain through studying a language, playing games, or doing word, memory, or numerical puzzles can help slow down age-related cognitive decline. While mental exercises don’t help every type of dementia, studies show that they may delay the onset, allowing patients to spend less time experiencing severe symptoms.
Alcohol and Tobacco
Excessive drinking (over 14 servings a week) increases the risk of conditions that contribute to dementia, damages the nervous system and, over a period of time, can cause memory loss, altered speech, and other signs of brain damage. Smoking narrows arteries and raises blood pressure, restricting blood flow to the brain and increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Alcohol can have some minor health benefits, but experts agree that, if you don’t drink, it’s better not to start. For those who already drink, it’s best to stick to moderate drinking. This is up to one serving per day for women, or two for men. Smoking doesn’t have health benefits. If you smoke, try to quit.
There is a link between untreated depression and dementia. Those who show depressive symptoms early in life are at a higher risk of the condition, but experts are unsure if depression-related cognitive impairments result in dementia.
Untreated depression increases the risk of dementia, but depression can also be a depression symptom itself. Depression can also make it more difficult to exercise, eat well, and engage in mentally stimulating activities. People with depressive symptoms should seek treatment to improve their quality of life and lower their dementia risk.
Everyone exhibits some degree of cognitive decline as they age, but not everyone will develop dementia. By taking charge of the risk factors that are within your control, you can reduce your risk of experiencing a serious cognitive impairment.