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Cutting your dementia risk – latest thinking

There’s sadly no cure for dementia yet. But are there ways to minimise the risk of developing the disease?

It seems that the problem could be getting worse. Research into the effects of Covid-19 is necessarily still at an early stage, but already Covid has been linked to longer-term elevated risk of dementia.

The good news is that we’ve been seeing a steady trickle of scientific research-based advice appearing in the media. Here’s a round-up of some of the latest thinking.

First up are 7 simple habits that can cut Alzheimer’s risk in half according to a US study – and they’ll look very familiar to anyone with heart health issues, diabetes and other medical challenges:

  • Stay active
  • Eat better
  • Lose weight
  • Don’t smoke
  • Maintain healthy blood pressure
  • Control cholesterol
  • Reduce blood sugar

In a recent interview lifestyle advice from brain expert Richard Restak included continuing to read complex fiction, even if following the plot seems to be getting difficult. Referring to his book The Complete Guide to Memory: the Science of Strengthening Your Mind, Restak advocates giving up alcohol by the age of 70 (not good for nerve cells apparently), taking afternoon naps to help brain function, and tackling hearing and vision problems promptly to enable continued participation in conversations and hobbies. He does point out that none of these steps can prevent dementia – take the example of the brilliant writer Iris Murdoch, who still succumbed to dementia – but you may be able to reduce your risk.

With a focus particularly on diet, an international team has found that eating leafy greens to up your intake of vitamin K can prevent cell death, potentially inhibiting the development of Alzheimer’s.

Physical activity is regularly recommended for mind and body health. But what we do while we’re sitting can also affect our dementia risk, says another study conducted by US universities. This found that passively sitting and watching television for long periods can raise the chances of our developing dementia. However, indulging in less passive activities can reduce the negative effects of sitting.  This doesn’t have to be physical activity – reading and using a computer are less passive than simply looking at a television. The researchers add that raising levels of physical activity during the day is good for brain health, but won’t necessarily counteract the effects of just sitting.

Not necessarily dementia-related but recent research has suggested that mild electric shocks targeting specific areas of the brain could protect older people from short- and long-term memory loss. However, the research sample was quite small, focused on healthy participants, and involved word recall as the test. That said, the researchers say they did notice memory improvements over the month of treatment.

A lifetime of building your ‘cognitive reserves’ could be a key to avoiding dementia, according to a study at the University of London. The team looked at the genetic and lifestyle influences over the lifetime than 1,000 study participants and their cognitive reserves at 69 years of age. Maybe not entirely surprisingly, high scores on the cognitive test at 69 appeared to be associated with higher cognitive scores in childhood and greater reading ability in late middle age. Attending higher education was also a positive.  Additionally, those who engaged in at least six different leisure activities, such as gardening, volunteer work, learning a new language, or joining a book club, scored more highly than those who participated in four or fewer activities. And higher skilled professional level jobs were associated with higher scores than lower skilled jobs.

Social interaction is another regular feature in the drive to reduce dementia risk. This has been a cause for concern during lockdown. Now research has shown that for socially isolated older people with mild cognitive impairment, a 30-minute video call four times a week can improve cognition, happiness and brain connectivity

And finally, it’s widely recognised that it is difficult to know what’s simply a sign of ageing and what might be more serious. It seems that some women and their GPs are mistaking early signs of dementia for menopausal symptoms.

If you’re concerned that you or someone you know may be showing a change in behaviour that’s not just down to normal stresses, take a look at the checklist of dementia symptoms.

Photo by Lisa Fotios: https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-laying-on-sofa-while-reading-book-1471991/

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