Dementia refers to the decline in mental ability that is severe enough to impair a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. It affects memory, thinking, orientation, comprehension, calculation, learning capacity, language, and judgement. Around 50 million people worldwide have dementia with Alzheimer’s disease as the most common type. And every year brings 10 million new cases, says the report recently released by the World Health Organization (WHO).
“In the next 30 years, the number of people with dementia is expected to triple,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “We need to do everything we can to reduce our risk of dementia. The scientific evidence gathered for these guidelines confirms what we have suspected for some time, that what is good for our heart, is also good for our brain.”
Age is a risk factor so the older you are, the more likely you are to develop dementia. Certain genetic factors are involved with some more unusual forms of dementia — for the most part, dementia develops as a combination of genetic and “environmental” factors (i.e. smoking, lack of regular exercise). Although age is the top risk factor, “dementia is not a natural or inevitable consequence of aging,” the report says.
The report outlined what in WHO’s expert opinion think will and won’t help reduce the risk of dementia. So, if you want to save your brain, here are the do’s and don’ts from the new WHO guidelines for preventing dementia.
Exercise. The role of exercise is especially important. A physically active lifestyle is linked to brain health. A recent study of more than 1,600 people over age 65 found that those who spent more time sitting had the same risk of developing dementia as people who carry a genetic mutation that puts them at higher risk of Alzheimer’s. Weight loss could indirectly reduce the risk of dementia by improving a variety of metabolic factors linked with cognitive impairment and dementia (i.e. glucose tolerance, insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, oxidative stress, and inflammation).
Continue Learning. You’ve heard the saying: “use it or lose it.” Studies show that those who utilize their brains more by learning a new language or musical instrument, or furthering their education tend to have lower rates of dementia and problems with their thinking later in life.
Eat well. A healthy diet contains fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains. In particular, committing to a Mediterranean diet (plant-based cooking, little meat and a heavy emphasis on olive oil) could help. The Mediterranean diet is the most extensively studied dietary approach, in general as well as in relation to cognitive function. Several systematic reviews of observational studies have concluded that high adherence to this diet is associated with decreased risk of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s Disease, but modest adherence is not.
Socialize. Socialization is important for all of us. Engaging with other people in social situations help patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia and may even slow the progress of these conditions. The Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention, and Care identified social engagement as an intervention that could be used to prevent dementia
Lower Blood Pressure. Lowering blood pressure may help protect memory and thinking skills later in life. A large blood pressure study, called Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial, or SPRINT, looked at over 9,000 people over the age of 50 years old and found that those who lowered their blood pressure to 120 (systolic blood pressure) were 19 percent less likely to develop cognitive impairment. Results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
Don’t Smoke. There is strong evidence that smoking is associated with an increased risk of dementia. The toxins in cigarette smoke increase oxidative stress and inflammation, which have both been linked to developing of Alzheimer’s disease. Tobacco cessation is associated with reduced depression, anxiety and stress, and improved mood and quality of life compared with continuing to smoke.
Don’t drink too much. Excessive alcohol consumption leads to numerous health problems such as liver damage, stomach issues, impaired cognitive function, and more. If alcoholic beverages are consumed in large quantities over a relatively short period of times, most health problems can be cured relatively easily using special treatment and by quitting drinking. However, if one abuses alcohol throughout many years, this doesn’t only lead to liver cirrhosis, but also a condition called alcoholic dementia. There is extensive evidence on excessive alcohol as a risk factor for dementia and cognitive decline.
Don’t waste money on supplements. There is currently no evidence to show that taking supplements (i.e. B vitamins, antioxidants, omega-3 ginkgo) reduces the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. In fact, scientific evidence shows that in high doses these supplements may be harmful.
These potentially modifiable risk factors mean that prevention of dementia is possible through a public health approach, including key interventions that delay or slow cognitive decline or dementia. Much of the WHO’s advice is common sense and aligns with what the US National Institute on Aging advises.
Melvin is a curious lifelong learner. He studied biology, medicine, health economics, infectious diseases, clinical development, and public policy. He writes about global health, vaccines, outbreaks, and pathogens.