Nine lifestyle factors are responsible for 35% of dementia. As shown in the FINGER study, lifestyle changes can make a big impact on lowering dementia risk.
A more recent study reported at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2017 and published in Lancet completed a meta-analysis which went even further. This meta-analysis looked at risk factors and found that over 1/3 of dementia cases could be avoided through lifestyle changes. The big take-away from the report was to be ambitious about prevention.
The lifestyle factors identified in the report can be distilled into three main areas of impact.
The first domain focuses on cardiovascular health. Actively treating high blood pressure, managing diabetes and obesity, increasing physical exercise, and reducing smoking all have a positive impact on the cardiovascular system. We know that the brain consumes a significant amount of oxygen and glucose to function well and that both the heart and the lungs provide those essential elements to the brain. So, it is not surprising that improving cardiovascular health will reduce dementia risk.
The second domain focuses on social engagement. Managing hearing loss, treating depression, and improving social engagement all have a positive impact on reducing dementia risk. We know that the human person is wired to connect to other people. We recognize that babies who do not have enough social interaction fail to thrive, so it is not surprising that adults who have low social interaction also fail to thrive.
Hearing loss can be particularly isolating for individuals as they age. My great-grandmother significantly declined after she went deaf. She was no longer able to interact with the individuals in the community that she lived in, and she became isolated and withdrawn.
Do Not Replace Humans with Technology.
The study cautioned that while technology can be helpful, it should not replace social contact. We know from the Oregon study that the face-to-face connections have a bigger impact on depression than email or phone calls. This area really speaks to the need of individuals to have emotional connections with other human beings.
The third domain focuses on intellectual engagement. Early learning patterns establish high idea density, a concept previously explored in the Nun Study. High idea density is the complexity of individual thought patterns. The greater the complexity, the stronger the cognitive resilience of the brain. Higher learning helps develop high idea density, so individuals with completed secondary education and post-secondary education reduce dementia risk.
Positive patterns established towards learning in early life build cognitive resilience. Increased cognitive resilience buffers against diseases like Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.
Continuing to learn new material and engage in complex and novel mental activities help the brain stay strong.
The Main Takeaway.
While the genetic predispositions for Alzheimer’s are not presently modifiable, we can significantly reduce dementia risk by altering lifestyle. And implementing these lifestyle changes will not only reduce dementia risk but will also improve quality of life.