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Published on: December 15, 2014
by Rosa Silverman for The Telegraph:
Following four out of five golden rules for healthy living lowers the risk of developing dementia by more than a third, a study has found.
Analysis by Age UK suggested that lifestyle was responsible for 76% of changes in the brain and that people could go some way to avoiding the disease by adopting or quitting certain habits.
Taking regular physical exercise, eating a Mediterranean diet, not smoking, and drinking alcohol in moderation were all found to decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
In addition, preventing and treating diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity was also found to reduce the risk.
But while heavy drinking was linked to dementia, drinking moderate levels of alcohol was found to be beneficial.
A review of academic studies and data by researchers at the University of Edinburgh revealed that more than three quarters of cognitive decline – age-related changes in brain skills including memory and speed of thinking – was accounted for by lifestyle and other environmental factors including level of education.
One large UK study carried out over 30 years found that men aged between 45 and 59 who followed four to five of the identified lifestyle factors were found to have a 36% lower risk of developing cognitive decline and a 36% lower risk of developing dementia than those who did not.
Age UK’s evidence review also revealed that physical exercise, whether aerobic, resistance or balance activity, was the most effective way to ward off cognitive decline in healthy older people and reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Studies suggest that exercise three to five times a week for between 30 minutes and an hour is beneficial.
A healthy diet, moderate alcohol intake and not smoking also play a role in healthy brain ageing generally, as well as reducing the risk of developing dementia, the evidence review suggested.
It found that there are significantly more new cases of Alzheimer’s among current smokers compared with those who have never smoked.
The review supported claims that very heavy drinking increases the risk of developing dementia as it results in the loss of brain tissue, particularly in the parts of the brain responsible for memory and processing and interpreting visual information.
Moderate levels of alcohol, however, were found to protect brain tissue by increasing good cholesterol and lowering bad cholesterol.
According to the latest estimates, there are 850,000 people in the UK living with dementia and the disease will affect one in three people over the age of 65.
Age UK, which is funding the university’s Disconnected Mind project investigating how thinking skills alter with age and what influences those changes, said it hoped the new evidence would spur people on to make lifestyle choices that would reduce their risk of dementia.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director, said “While there’s still no cure or way to reverse dementia, this evidence shows that there are simple and effective ways to reduce our risk of developing it to begin with.
“What’s more, the changes that we need to make to keep our brains healthy are already proven to be good for the heart and overall health, so it’s common sense for us all to try to build them into our lives.
“The sooner we start, the better our chance of having a healthy later life.”
A YouGov poll of more than 2,000 people by the Alzheimer’s Society earlier this year found 22% of people did not think it was possible to reduce their risk of dementia, however.
Age and dementia charities hope to change this by increasing public awareness of the lifestyle factors behind the disease.
An Alzheimer’s Society spokesman said: “What’s good for your heart is good for your head. The best way of reducing your risk of developing dementia is regular excercise, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a Mediterranean diet and keeping your cholesterol in check.”
Dr Matthew Norton, head of policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK, added: “It’s now recognised across public health authorities that lifestyle changes could contribute to reducing dementia risk. It’s now time for these messages to start reaching the public to help empower people protect their cognitive health as they grow older.
“It’s important to remember that diseases like Alzheimer’s are complex and are likely to be caused by a mixture of genetic and environmental factors, which are still not fully understood. While there are ways to reduce our risk of dementia, there is currently no sure-fire way to prevent the condition, which is why continued investment in research is vital.”
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