Dementia is a significant global health challenge for the 21st century. According to the 2015 World Alzheimer Report, 50 million people in the world have dementia, and that figure is expected to rise to 131 million by 2050. However, new research commissioned by the medical journal The Lancet shows there are several lifestyle changes you can make throughout your life to lower your risk of dementia.
According to the Lancet report, up to 35% of your risk for dementia is made up of 9 “potentially modifiable” risk factors – things you can do something about:
- Not finishing high school (8% of total risk)
- Smoking (5% of total risk)
- Failing to seek early treatment for depression (4% of total risk)
- Physical inactivity (3% of total risk)
- Social isolation (2% of total risk)
- High blood pressure (2% of total risk)
- Obesity (1% of total risk)
- Type 2 diabetes (1% of total risk)
- Hearing loss in mid-life (9% of total risk)
Dr. Marie-Hélène Pelletier, Assistant Vice President of Workplace Health at Sun Life, says this latest research is noteworthy because it points to ways people can manage their risk of dementia. “The things that we should do today for our health – such as exercising – are good for our everyday wellbeing. However, this study is reminding us that what we do today can also be incredibly good for our older selves,” says Pelletier.
Meaningful connections can reduce your risk of dementia
A recent study conducted by 3 British universities and published in the Journals of Gerontology, titled Loneliness, Social Integration and Incident Dementia Over Six Years, found that “meaningful social connections” such as marriage and close, meaningful friendships may help prevent dementia. The study found that feeling lonely increased participants’ risk of dementia by 44%.
Many people experience feelings of isolation when they retire, because they’re no longer plugged into their workplace social and support networks. Most of us prepare financially for retirement but we should also be preparing to maintain our social and psychological wellbeing in retirement, says Pelletier. “It’s important to think about ways to stay connected to a community throughout the retirement years,” she says. “The workplace is a significant way people socialize in their working years. And for some people the workplace is their only community. However, it’s important to build networks outside of work”.
What is dementia?
Dementia isn’t a specific disease; rather, it refers to symptoms caused by disorders that affect the brain and impair one’s ability to think, relate to others and perform everyday tasks. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80% of dementia-related diagnoses, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Several other diseases and conditions can also cause dementia, including Lewy body disease, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease. As well, stroke or head trauma sometimes cause dementia. Many such conditions get progressively worse as symptoms intensify over time.
3 ways to help reduce your risk of dementia
- Strategically find ways to get social, especially in retirement. Find new ways to give back and connect with others, whether that means getting involved with programming offered by your local community centre, volunteering at your place of worship or helping out at your child or grandchild’s school.
- Make working out a regular part of your routine. This is important at every stage of life, to reduce dementia risk factors such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. “There is a big psychological distance between our older and younger selves, but perhaps next time we exercise we can tell ourselves that we’re doing this for our older selves,” says Pelletier.
- Don’t hesitate to seek help when you’re feeling blue. If you’re reluctant to speak to a professional, Pelletier suggests learning more by visiting reputable websites such as the Canadian Psychological Association or the Mood Disorders Society of Canada. They will give you a good idea of what it looks like when you consult with a psychologist or psychiatrist, and can give you more insights on the benefits of therapy. Some sites also provide you with a template for how to talk to your physician about your mental health.
There is no sure-fire way to avoid dementia, but this new research shows that making healthy physical and mental choices from a young age can make life brighter for our future selves in more ways than one.