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With people in the UK living longer than ever before, dementia has overtaken heart disease as the biggest single cause of death, prompting more research into the degenerative condition and ways to slow or even halt its progress.

There is already an estimated 47 million people worldwide living with some form of dementia, but that figure is predicted to rise to 131 million by 2050 as the world’s population lives longer. There is currently no cure for dementia, but as with any disease, prevention is better than cure and scientists are increasingly focussing their efforts in this area.

Now a new study presented to the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London suggests that one-in-three cases of dementia could be prevented if people looked after their brain health throughout life. The study, featured in respected medical journal the Lancet, highlights nine lifestyle factors which each contribute to the risk of dementia in later life.

The good news is that taking positive action to address these factors could reduce the risk, and while each individual factor might only contribute a small percentage risk, together they amount to 35%. In other words, more than a third of the factors known to contribute to the risk of dementia can be reduced or eliminated by taking positive lifestyle steps.

The nine factors identified in the study (and their percentage risk they carry for dementia) are:

  • Mid-life hearing loss – 9%
  • Failing to complete secondary education – 8%
  • Smoking – 5%
  • Failure to seek early treatment for depression – 4%
  • Physical inactivity – 3%
  • Social isolation – 2%
  • High blood pressure – 2%
  • Obesity – 1%
  • Type 2 diabetes – 1%

Many of these risk factors are linked, for example, obesity can be linked with physical inactivity and lead to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and even social isolation. So taking positive action to address one area could also bring benefits in others, further reducing the percentage risk.

The study strongly suggests that those who complete their secondary education and continue to learn and stimulate their brains throughout life are less likely to suffer from dementia. The biggest single risk factor is hearing loss in middle age, since this significantly reduces sensory stimulation for the brain. But advances in hearing aids mean this can be addressed fairly simply in most cases.

Measures which bring all-round health benefits are also shown to be good for the brain, such as maintaining a healthy weight, regular exercise, not smoking and treating conditions such as hypertension (high blood pressure) and diabetes. The researchers also believe a healthy diet and limiting alcohol intake will bring benefits, although they didn’t have enough data to include those factors in the study. In general though, the old adage “healthy body, healthy mind” rings true.

In essence, the study suggests that addressing these lifestyle factors throughout life will build a stronger brain – termed a “cognitive reserve” – which will make it up to 35% less susceptible to dementia in later life.

Its lead author, Professor Gill Livingston, from University College, London, said: “Although dementia is usually diagnosed in later life, the brain changes usually begin to develop years before. Acting now will vastly improve life for people with dementia and their families and, in doing so, will transform the future of society.”

Commenting on the study, Dr Doug Brown, director of research for the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “Though it’s not inevitable, dementia is set to be the 21st century’s biggest killer. We all need to be aware of the risks and start making positive lifestyle changes.”

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