By ALEX HANDYSIDE
An international study published in July’s edition of The Lancet states that one in three cases of dementia could be prevented if more people looked after their brain health throughout life.
“Although dementia is diagnosed in later life, the brain changes usually begin to develop years before,” said lead author Prof Gill Livingston, from University College London. “Acting now on dementia prevention, intervention, and care will vastly improve living and dying for individuals with dementia and their families, and in doing so, will transform the future for society.”
This is significant, given that 565,000 Canadians are currently living with dementia. And, by 2030, that figure is predicted to explode to just under 1 million — a 66 per cent increase. With dementia costing Canadians $10.4 billion per year, a potential reduction of one-third is indeed enormous.
An estimated 47 million people today are living with dementia globally. By 2050, it is predicted that number will grow to 131 million — that’s more than the population of Russia. With humans increasingly living longer, and 65 per cent of those diagnosed with dementia over the age of 65 being women, this is already an epidemic.
What must I do to help prevent the onset of dementia?
The study listed nine potentially modifiable lifestyle factors that contribute to the risk of dementia. Some will come as no surprise, but a couple of the factors — and the amount of associated risk — were a revelation.
- Mid-life hearing loss — responsible for nine per cent of the risk
- Failing to complete secondary education — eight per cent
- Smoking — five per cent
- Failing to seek early treatment for depression — four per cent
- Physical inactivity — three per cent
- Social isolation — two per cent
- High blood pressure — two per cent
- Obesity — one per cent
- Type 2 diabetes — one per cent
These nine risk factors — be they bad habits we shouldn’t indulge in, or good habits we should — add up to 35 per cent. Which means the other 65 per cent of dementia risk is considered to be non-modifiable and therefore outside of our control (eg. gender, age, genetics, environment, etc).
Although over one-third of risk factors are potentially within our power to mitigate, a few of these habits, choices or circumstances would need to have been addressed before today.
If you’ve read this far, chances are there’s not much you can do now about failing to complete high school. Would cries of “Turn that racket down!” have been any more impactful — or successful — 50 years ago if my parents had added “… or you’ll catch dementia”? No, I don’t think so — that particular boat has sailed.
However, the others factors we can do something about — though they do place a significant responsibility on the current owner of your bodily temple to step up now and do the right thing.
You’ve heard them all before: stop smoking, be active, lose weight, eat better, get fit. But it is different this time — this is about your brain health.
Doing puzzles, such as crosswords, jigsaws, sudoku and word searches, or learning a new language are great ways to keep your brain active.
Many of the factors are clearly interlinked: hearing loss or depression often lead to social isolation; physical inactivity and diabetes can be caused by obesity; smoking may be a precursor of high blood pressure.
Lifestyle factors can play a significant role in increasing or reducing an individual's dementia risk. It really is time to change those habits of a lifetime, or that lifetime of yours may be unexpectedly shortened. And won’t you just kick yourself afterwards when you learn you could have done something about it!
Alex Handyside is a certified professional consultant on aging and a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. He spent the 12 years prior to his retirement as the owner of an award-winning home-care agency. He now writes and consults.