Age has long been identified as the biggest risk factor for dementia, i.e. the older we get, the higher our chances of getting dementia. However, there are other risk factors that influence how likely it is that a person gets dementia. Some of these risk factors are genetic, and some are related to the lifestyles that we choose. The good news is that lifestyle risk factors are modifiable- we can choose how we live our lives, and thereby decrease our risk of getting dementia.
It has been estimated that 35% of dementia may be preventable, and in the next few blogs we want to explore where the opportunities for preventing dementia lie. One of the leading centres in this field can be found in Scotland- the Centre for Dementia Prevention. This centre combines research in science, medicine, and social sciences to lead global efforts in preventing dementia. Currently, the ongoing PREVENT study aims to identify early indicators of dementia risk in middle aged people that may appear decades before any dementia symptoms occur.
One of the most well-known factors that influences the risk of getting dementia is cardiovascular health. Many studies have shown that cardiovascular health factors and heart disease play an important role in brain health. Why is this? Our hearts pump about 15% of our blood supply to our brains. Our blood is enriched with Oxygen, and even though our brain comprises only about 2% of our total body weight, it uses 20% of Oxygen. This means the brain is very reliant on the heart, and any changes to the blood supply can affect brain functioning. If your heart is not pumping well or if blood vessels in the brain are damaged, then the brain may struggle to get all the Oxygen it requires for normal functioning. Therefore, any condition that damages your heart or blood vessels, such as high blood pressure, will affect the way your brain functions.
Below are some of the things that are bad for your heart, and some suggestions for what you can do to stay as healthy as possible:
1. Using tobacco
- Why is it bad for my heart? Smoking damages the lining of your artery (blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart) walls. This can cause your arteries to become smaller, which increases your blood pressure.
- What can I do? Stop smoking. Although this can be a difficult process, it can be a very important decision for your health. It is estimated that if smoking were to be eliminated in late life, 5% of dementia could be prevented.
2. Too much salt in the diet
- Why is it bad for my heart? Too much salt in the diet can cause fluid retention. This in turn can lead to an increase in the blood pressure.
- What can I do? Reduce the amount of salt in your diet- use less salt while cooking and avoid processed foods that are high in salt (e.g. ready-made noodles)
3. Too much alcohol
- Why is it bad for my heart? Heavy drinking can damage both the heart and the brain.
- What can I do? Reduce your alcohol intake- if you have already been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment or a form of dementia it can be particularly important to stop drinking altogether.
4. Not enough exercise
- Why is it bad for my heart? People who are inactive have a higher heart rate. This means the heart must work harder with each contraction, which puts a stronger force on the arteries.
- What can I do? Joining a group for exercise can be a good way to motivate yourself. There are many walking and jogging groups that cater to all levels. If you go walking or do other moderate exercise for only 30 minutes each day, this can get your body moving and the heart pumping, improving your cardiovascular health.
5. Obesity or being overweight (especially in midlife)
- Why is it bad for my heart? More weight means more blood is needed to supply Oxygen and nutrients to the brain. As more blood is circulated through your blood vessels, the pressure on the artery walls increases. A long-term study of 1500 adults found that those that were obese in middle age were twice as likely to develop dementia in later life. Obesity also predisposes you to diabetes, which has been identified as a significant risk factor for dementia.
- What can I do? Rather than choosing to eat very little over a short period of time or going on a diet, change your lifestyle! Remember changing your eating habits will take time, but if you change your diet in the long-run you will benefit from it significantly.
6. A diet high in fat and cholesterol
- Why is it bad for my heart? Studies have shown that a high intake of saturated fat and cholesterol clogs the arteries and is associated with a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
- What can I do? Be aware of which foods are high in cholesterol. Use mono- and polyunsaturated fats, such as olive oil. You can also try baking or grilling food instead of frying it.
The Alzheimer’s Association recommends be heart smart and manage your numbers: controlling your body weight, BP, cholesterol and blood sugar helps reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Remember- a happy heart leads to a happy brain!