Posted on Categories Discover Magazine
Search the term “preventing dementia” online, and a list of possible precautions pop up. One story describes a new study that finds older Americans who used the Internet — but not too much — have a lower risk of dementia. Other stories suggest that taking vitamin D, getting a good night’s sleep or learning a second language are key to combating dementia.
Scientists don’t fully understand what causes dementia, a degenerative neurological condition that impacts memory, speech and basic functioning. But they do know that as many as 40 percent of cases could be slowed or prevented by making certain lifestyle changes.
In 2020, The Lancet Commission on Dementia identified 12 risk factors. Although some of these factors, like air pollution, are out of a person’s control, there are many lifestyle changes a person can make to reduce their risk. Problematically, studies find that most people aren’t aware of the risk factors and what they can do to protect themselves.
As more people live longer, the threat of developing this condition increases. By 2050, an estimated 135 million people will be living with dementia. The bulk of these diagnoses, about 71 percent, will come from lower and middle-income countries where education and healthcare are more limited.
Scientists have learned that preventing dementia is a lifelong process that begins in childhood with access to education. The Lancet Commission identified not having an education beyond age 12 as an important risk factor.
Lack of education is a widespread problem as many people worldwide cannot read or have a limited education. About 14 percent of the world’s population aged 15 and over are illiterate, and although younger generations are becoming more literate, young girls are less educated than their male peers.
Literacy is increasing, but access to education past age 12 is not. Dropout rates were made worse during the COVID-19 pandemic when more older children left school, particularly girls.
Reading and engaging in intellectual challenges can reduce a person’s risk for dementia later in life. Scientists believe education helps build a person’s cognitive reserve, allowing the brain to endure neuropathology. A stronger cognitive reserve can mean a person’s dementia is less noticeable or progresses more slowly.
Maintaining a cognitive reserve starts early in life but has to be worked at over the years. This is why studies suggest a person who challenges themselves mentally through puzzles or language learning could stave it off.
Social ties are also a way to maintain a person’s cognitive reserve. The Lancet Commission noted that hearing loss typically begins in middle age (after age 45) and can threaten a person’s interest in socializing and, in turn, minimize their cognitive reserve — but more on that later.
During the middle years, a person can also start to develop other dementia risk factors related to vascular brain damage. Having diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, and obesity all create the potential for vascular brain damage. Similarly, smoking and drinking alcohol excessively also risk brain damage associated with the condition.
The Lancet categorized the above conditions as “modifiable factors” that could be changed through interventions. Exercising, eating a Mediterranean diet, getting hearing aids if needed, managing cholesterol and hypertension, drinking in moderation and not smoking can all help reduce or prevent dementia.
There were other identified risk factors. However, the commission identified that a person could likely not control, including head injury and vascular damage from air pollution.
As people enter later life (after age 65), dwindling social contact and depression can be painful risk factors for dementia. Researchers have linked social isolation to a decline in cardiovascular health and an increase in depression and dementia.
Social isolation increases a person’s risk for dementia because it limits how they engage with others and maintain their cognitive reserve. Similarly, as mentioned above, hearing loss can also stop older adults from socializing or challenging themselves mentally. About one-third of U.S. adults have hearing loss, which makes it difficult for them to speak on the phone, follow conversations or enjoy listening to the TV or radio. Only about one-fifth of older adults with hearing loss actually have a pair of hearing aids.
Interventions like hearing aids, exercise and community-supported social events can help older people get the socialization they need to maintain their cognitive reserve and fend off dementia. Such interventions demonstrate how managing “modifiable factors” is a lifelong need that follows a person from their earliest to their oldest years.
Read More: The 4 Main Types of Dementia