A healthy lifestyle could be the key to cutting the risk of dementia by a third, according to a new study.
The research suggests that adopting four out of five of the healthy lifestyle suggestions could cut your risk of dementia, found the analysis by Age UK.
The research suggested that lifestyle was responsible for 76% of changes in the brain and that people could go some way to avoiding the disease by adopting or shunning particular habits.
The five simple and easy lifestyle changes include: regular physical exercise, eating a Mediterranean diet, not smoking, drinking alcohol in moderation and preventing and treating diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.
A review of academic studies and data by researchers at the University of Edinburgh revealed that more than three quarters of cognitive decline – age-related changes in brain skills including memory and speed of thinking – was accounted for by lifestyle and other environmental factors including level of education.
A large study, carried out over 30 years, found that men aged between 45 and 59 who followed four-to-five of the lifestyle factors were found to have a 36% lower risk of developing cognitive decline and a 36% lower risk of developing dementia than those who did not.
The review highlighted the importance of physical exercise –aerobic, resistance or balance – as the most effective way to ward off cognitive decline in healthy older people and reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Studies suggest that exercise three to five times a week for 30 minutes to an hour is beneficial.
Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director of Age UK said: “While there’s still no cure or way to reverse dementia, this evidence shows that there are simple and effective ways to reduce our risk of developing it to begin with.
“What’s more, the changes that we need to make to keep our brains healthy are already proven to be good for the heart and overall health, so it’s common sense for us all to try to build them into our lives. The sooner we start, the better our chance of having a healthy later life.”
The review also backed up claims that heavy drinking was linked to dementia, resulting in the loss of brain tissue particularly in the parts of the brain that are responsible for memory and processing and interpreting visual information. Moderate levels of alcohol however, were found to protect the brain tissue by increasing good cholesterol and decreasing bad cholesterol.
According to the latest estimates, there are 850,000 people in the UK living with dementia and the disease will affect one in three people over the age of 65.
Dr Matthew Norton, head of policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK, explained: “It’s not recognised across public health authorities that lifestyle changes could contribute to reducing dementia risk. It’s now time for these messages to start reaching the public to help empower people to protect their cognitive health as they grow older.
“It’s important to remember that diseases like Alzheimer’s are complex and are likely to be caused by a mixture of genetic and environmental factors, which are still not fully understood. While there are ways to reduce our risk of dementia, there is currently no sure-fire way to prevent the condition, which is why continued investment in research is vital.”
Age UK, which is funding the university’s Disconnected Mind project investigating how thinking skills alter with age and what influences those changes, said it hoped the new evidence would spur people on to make lifestyle choices that would reduce their risk of dementia.
A YouGov poll of more than 2,000 people by the Azheimer’s Society earlier this year found that 22% of people did not think it was possible to reduce their risk of dementia. Age and dementia charities hope to change this by increasing public awareness of the lifestyle factors behind the disease.
An Alzheimer’s Society spokesman said: “What’s good for your heart is good for your head. The best way of reducing your risk in developing dementia is regular exercise, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a Mediterranean diet and keeping your cholesterol in check.”