My patients are often worried about their risk for developing dementia because they had a parent or a sibling with Alzheimer’s. This is understandable. Having a family member with Alzheimer’s or dementia does slightly elevate your risk for dementia, but it does not mean you are destined to get dementia.
Can dementia be prevented? Yes, much of your risk can be reduced!
It is estimated that over 50% of cases of Alzheimer’s could be due to totally preventable behavioral factors. However, many of these risk factors are inter-correlated. Correcting for inter-correlations, it is estimated that at a US-population level, 1/3 of cases of Alzheimer’s could be prevented by lifestyle modifications.
These are things that are under your control! Let’s explore what contributes to dementia risk in older age:
- Diabetes- Here we are mainly talking about type II diabetes, which people tend to develop when they get older. Sometimes, type II diabetes can be controlled by diet. More severe diabetes cases need insulin.
- Midlife hypertension- this refers to developing high blood pressure in middle age. Now, if you already have high blood pressure, you are probably on a statin medication. This helps control your blood pressure. Some people have read the literature that statins may be bad for your memory. Most docs I have talked with feel that it is better to control your blood pressure than take the small risk of the statin potentially affecting your memory.
- Midlife obesity- this refers to becoming significantly overweight in midlife. It is also increases your risk for diabetes and for hypertension, so these three are all related.
- Physical inactivity- when you exercise, blood pumps oxygen through your body, including to your brain. In fact, the only thing that has actually been shown in research to increase the size of the memory part of the brain (the hippocampus) is doing regular cardiovascular exercise. So, if you are worried about your memory, get moving!
- Hearing loss- When people have a difficult time hearing others, sometimes they tend to just tune out because it is easier than trying to follow a conversation. This can lead to lack of social engagement with others and a lack of brain stimulation in general. If you are having trouble hearing, please don’t just tune out others and turn up the TV. Please get your hearing checked out!
- Social isolation- Speaking of lack of social engagement, this has also been shown to be a risk factor for dementia. Sometimes as people age they become separated from their communities, as they no longer have work to keep them interacting with people on a daily basis. Regular conversation and interaction with others likely helps to keep us sharp. If you live alone and do not get out much, you may want to call a friend you know to schedule a regular lunch date, or see if there are activities in your community you might be interested in joining.
- Depression- Social engagement also serves as a buffer against depression. The link between depression and dementia is not clearly understood. However, one idea is that depression contributes to dementia risk by altering the brain’s neurochemistry. Depression is tricky to diagnose in yourself, because you can actually have depression without feeling sad or blue. Read more about the signs and symptoms of depression.
- Smoking- This one is hopefully obvious by now. Smoking increases your risk of stroke and also hardens your arteries.
- Low educational attainment- Researchers think high educational attainment protects against Alzheimer’s through a hypothesis called “cognitive reserve.” This means that if you have lots of education and knowledge, it serves as a buffer against dementia, perhaps by building more connections in the brain. Those people with less education, and perhaps less brain connections from extensive schooling, are more susceptible when Alzheimer’s pathology shows up.
Are you looking for some ways to maximize your memory and boost your full potential? Consider cognitive rehabilitation, a way to improve and capitalize upon your existing strengths. Get in touch for more information!