Want to Avoid Dementia in Late Life? Get Some Exercise, Lose the Weight and Quit Smoking

Diminishing mental capacity is not a natural part of aging. Until recently, dementia was considered unpreventable. It is not a disease in itself, rather it is a syndrome marked by a deterioration of cognitive abilities. The majority, up to 70 percent, of dementia cases, are attributed to Alzheimer’s disease, however cognitive impairment may stem from other diseases, head trauma or stroke. While family history is a major risk factor for dementia, recent research suggests lifestyle may play a role in brain health, and individuals may modify their behaviors to lessen their risk of dementia as they age.

The focus is on reducing risk

According to the World Health Organization, 7.7 new cases of dementia are diagnosed worldwide each year. It is a major cause of disability and dependency among older people, negatively affecting their lives and the lives of their families, caregivers and society.

The World Dementia Council has made dementia risk reduction a priority. At the request of the WDC, the Alzheimer’s Association evaluated evidence on risk factors related to dementia and  presented their findings at the October 2014 WDC meeting. The Alzheimer’s Association reports the evidence is strong; some risk factors can be modified.

Heart healthy is also brain healthy

Many of the things you do to keep your heart healthy may also reduce your risk of developing dementia. The Association found a strong link between diabetes and dementia. Diabetics with mild cognitive impairment progressed more rapidly to dementia than individuals who did not have diabetes. The Association study suggests diabetes increases dementia risk through vascular pathways and through other biological mechanisms.

Half the studies reviewed found a strong link between mid-life obesity and dementia, although the evaluation notes that some studies found being overweight later in life is linked to a reduced risk. Similarly, high blood pressure at mid-life proved a risk factor for later-life dementia, however high blood pressure in later life appeared to protect against cognitive decline. How you take care of yourself in middle age will determine how your brain ages.

Elevated cholesterol levels did not affect brain health, although some studies suggest statin medications commonly prescribed for high cholesterol may reduce the risk of dementia. The Association was unable to find consistent evidence to support this.

Personal lifestyle choices affect the brain

The evidence is clear with tobacco. Smoking increases the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. The Association notes that one study found heavy smoking in mid-life doubled the risk of dementia later in life. Individuals who quit smoking may reduce their risk to the same levels as those who have never smoked.

Physical activity is another way to reduce the risk of cognitive decline and it may even improve cognitive functioning. The activity doesn’t have to be strenuous, a regular program of walking is enough to reap brain-health benefits.

 “The evidence has now reached a point that it can no longer remain simply an exercise in academic discussion,” the Alzheimer’s Association wrote in their summary. “The public should know what the science concludes: certain healthy behaviors known to be effective for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer are also good for brain health and for reducing the risk of cognitive decline.”