Changing the conversation about health

Making healthy lifestyle changes could cut dementia cases by 40 per cent, says new research

Cutting back on alcohol, exercising more and not smoking are among 12 lifestyle changes that could help reduce a person’s risk of developing dementia, a major new study has found.

A global team of 28 dementia experts conducted the comprehensive study for the Lancet medical journal and found that some 40 per cent of dementia cases could be avoided completely or delayed, with 12 potentially modifiable risk factors identified as contributing to dementia risk. 

Developing the disease had previously been put down to genetics and ageing.

There are currently around 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with researchers now believing that around 340,000 of those cases are caused by a combination of medical history, education, environment and lifestyle habits.

In 2017, a Lancet review identified nine factors that could contribute to an increased risk of developing the disease.

They included poor blood circulation, which is influenced by exercise, diet and alcohol consumption.

Adopting a healthy lifestyle – including exercising and reducing alcohol intake – is thought to decrease the risk of developing dementia

Education was also listed as a factor, with those continuing to stretch their mental thinking throughout their lives reducing the risk of getting dementia by 7 per cent. Other factors included hearing loss, loneliness and depression.

The updated research lists three more factors; brain injury, alcohol consumption and air pollution.

One of the scientists involved in the review, researcher Professor Clive Ballard of the University of Exeter, said: “Our findings present an exciting opportunity to improve millions of lives across the world by preventing or delaying dementia, through healthier lifestyle to include more exercise, being a healthy weight and stopping smoking, and good medical treatment of risk factors like high blood pressure. 

“One important less well known risk factor is hearing loss in mid-life, with emerging evidence that wearing hearing aids may be protective.

“This presented an important public health message – if you’re having hearing problems, getting tested in mid life and wearing a hearing aid if needed could have multiple benefits.

“This analysis shows there’s real potential to improve brain health by taking action.”

Fiona Carragher, director of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, said the latest research allowed people to take action in tackling identified risk factors

Professor Gill Livingston of UCL, study lead, said the government has a part to play in reducing environmental factors. 

“Our report shows that it is within the power of policy-makers and individuals to prevent and delay a significant proportion of dementia, with opportunities to make an impact at each stage of a person’s life.

“We can reduce risks by creating active and healthy environments for communities, where physical activity is the norm, better diet is accessible for all, and exposure to excessive alcohol is minimised.”

Fiona Carragher, director of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, which part-funded the study, said: “While we don’t have all the answers yet, we can take action now to tackle the risk factors within our control, including excessive drinking, obesity and high blood pressure.     

“Meanwhile, we need public health policies to address other factors, such as air pollution and inequalities in childhood education.”