In the three minutes it takes you to boil the kettle, pick a Netflix series, or skim Tinder and decide you’re never going on it again, another person in the UK will have developed dementia. The figures, frankly, are sh*t. No easier on the eyes than the disease is on the brain.
It’s extremely important that people in their 30s start combating dementia through lifestyle choices
By 2025, one million of us will have it, predicts research for the Alzheimer’s Society. For kids born today, that means 24% of boys and 35% of girls will go on to develop dementia – the umbrella term for symptoms of impaired thinking and memory.
Alzheimer’s is behind 50-70% of dementia cases, specifically affecting thought control, memory and language. “We’re seeing more and more people in their mid-40s experiencing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, which is a major cause of dementia,” admits psychiatrist and mental health expert Dr. Arghya Sarkhel.
We estimate that nearly 14% of Alzheimer’s diseases cases worldwide are attributable to smoking
“Early-onset dementia is much more of a concern because it is more aggressive (while later-onset dementia, age 65+, takes hold more gradually). It’s extremely important that people in their 30s start combating dementia through lifestyle choices.”
As scientists continue to try to find a cure – currently, the best help is symptom-managing drugs – we look at what could help ward dementia off before it digs its evil claws in.
Watch your blood pressure
According to the World Alzheimer Report 2014, multiple long-term studies found people with high blood pressure were more likely to develop vascular dementia – the second most common form after Alzheimer’s. High blood pressure is also the strongest risk factor for stroke; this in itself can cause the death of brain cells that leads to dementia.
Imagine a piece of fruit getting stuck in the straw of your smoothie – only this is essential nutrients and oxygen that can’t make it to your brain
Think your blood pressure’s fine? The NHS might eye-roll: one in four Brits has high blood pressure, but because it’s symptomless it’s easy to think you’re X-Men invincible. Their advice: get your numbers checked every five years.
You want a reading of around 120/80 mmHg – the first number being your systolic pressure (the pressure on your arteries per heartbeat); the second is diastolic pressure (the remaining pressure when the heart rests between beats).
Combined, you get a snapshot of the force on your arteries – anything consistently above 140/90 mmHg is the blood pressure equivalent of being too heavy to go on a fairground ride.
What’s this got to do with your grey matter? High pressure strains arteries – over time, making their walls stiffer and their capacity narrower. Imagine a piece of fruit getting stuck in the straw of your smoothie – only this is essential nutrients and oxygen that can’t make it to your brain.
The result is brain cell damage. You don’t want this. Known risk factors for high blood pressure include lack of exercise, being overweight or obese, an unhealthy diet high in salt and booze, plus smoking. We’re not killjoys – we just have your back… and your brain.
Stub out the habit
Smoking hasn’t been cool since Puff Daddy was in the charts – even as a 13 year old it never really got you more than detention and a lot of trouble. Today, smoking can land you in even more dire situations.
Smoking ups your dementia risk by a hefty 30-50%
“We estimate that nearly 14% of Alzheimer’s diseases cases worldwide are attributable to smoking,” says Dr. Deborah E. Barnes, professor of psychiatry – and a specialist in dementia research – at the University of California.
Both Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia are linked to problems with heart and blood vessels, which smoking increases the risk of. Toxins in cigarette smoke also encourage oxidative stress and inflammation – two things linked to Alzheimer’s disease, reports the Alzheimer’s Society, which estimates that smoking ups your dementia risk by a hefty 30-50%. A stat not to be puffed at.
The good news is that when you stop, so does the increased threat. It’s thought that exposure to second-hand smoke has a similar effect – potentially dementia-triggering when inhaled, but the risk resets when it’s avoided. So quit it – no ifs, and especially no butts.
Re-train your sweet tooth
Sugar is in desperate need of some good press, but research fresh out of July’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference won’t help its image.
Adding… one regular Coca-Cola of sugar to your diet each day raises dementia risk by 33%
A study by Columbia University found that individuals who added more than 2½ teaspoons of sugar to their tea or coffee each day – or who sprinkled the same amount on their cereal – were 54% more likely to develop dementia than those who skipped sugar.
People drinking more than half a can of full-fat fizzy drink a day were 47% more at risk than those who only sipped the sweet stuff once every three months.
The overall conclusion was that adding over 30 grams (around six teaspoons, or one regular Coca-Cola) of sugar to your diet each day raises dementia risk by 33% compared to those in the study who only had around one teaspoon.
Raised blood sugar is known to trigger diabetes
Why? Well, raised blood sugar is known to trigger diabetes. Both Alzheimer’s and diabetes involve changes in glucose metabolism – and scientists believe that excess glucose could cause alterations in sufferers’ brains.
“All excess sugar may increase our risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and all types of sugar – from fruit juice to lemonade – have the same impact,” admits Doug Brown, Chief Policy and Research Officer at the Alzheimer’s Society.
So long, sweet tooth.
Beware of blows to the head
Because physical impact can have a negative impact on your dementia odds. “Consistent injury to the head can raise chances of mini strokes, which in turn can increase your risk of dementia,” confirms Dr. Sarkhel.
CTE can start years after a head injury and is only diagnosed after death
Back in 1928, the term ‘Punch Drunk’ was coined to describe a progressive dementia disorder seen in boxers who frequently knocked their heads. Today, it’s known as (the less catchy) Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE – and we know a bit more about the mechanics behind it.
The main characteristic is inflammation in the nervous system, which leads to an abnormal build-up of a protein called tau – over time, triggering memory loss, confusion, aggression, depression, and, eventually, full-blown dementia.
CTE can start years after a head injury and is only diagnosed after death; as such, an ongoing research project, the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study, is examining the brain structure and mood patterns of around 400 boxers and martial artists in a bid to better predict early-stage CTE.
Until then, the advice is to use your head – metaphorically – during contact and collision sports such as boxing, football, rugby and hockey.
“Use head protection as much as possible, and after any serious head trauma seek an immediate consultation with a doctor who can advise whether it’s a good idea to return to that sport,” Dr. Sarkhel adds.
Sweat away your risk
In one of the longest ever studies to track the role of external factors on chronic disease, researchers at Cardiff University monitored 2,235 men for 35 years and found that exercise significantly reduces the risk of developing dementia.
Healthy behaviors have a far more beneficial effect than any medical treatment
The study looked at a fab five-some of behaviors – regular exercise, not smoking, healthy weight, healthy diet and low alcohol intake – and found that adopting four or five of them cut the risk of dementia by 60%. These clean-living variables also lead to a 70% reduction in diabetes, heart disease and stroke compared to people who did none of them. And of the five factors, exercise was the leading frontman – the Chris Martin of dementia prevention.
“Healthy behaviors have a far more beneficial effect than any medical treatment or preventative procedure,” confirms investigator Professor Peter Elwood.
Looking collectively at 29 clinical trials, the Alzheimer’s Society found that just a month of regular aerobic exercise was enough to improve memory, attention and processing speed.
Don’t worry, you don’t need to sign up for a Tough Mudder: 20-30 minutes of heart-pumping aerobic exercise, several times a week, ideally maintained for at least a year should do it. Time to dust off that gym pass.
Don’t ignore your brain fitness
The bad news is that attempting a crossword once a year isn’t going to miraculously give you the brain of a child genius. The good news is that having a mind that’s regularly active might* (*OK, it probably still won’t – but it will help your overall brain health).
“People who are consistently using and firing their neurons, i.e. through their profession or education, tend to develop better coping mechanisms for dementia as their neural reserve is greater,” says Dr. Sarkhel.
Playing a musical instrument can give a 36% lowered risk
Want to boost that up-top muscle? “Studies show that people who speak two languages may develop dementia more than four years later than those who speak only one language – as language-learning leads to more neural connections and more resilience to neural damage,” explains Dr Marilyn Glenville, author of Natural Solutions for Dementia and Alzheimer’s.
She also recommends digging out that old guitar: “Research suggests playing a musical instrument can give a 36% lowered risk of developing dementia and cognitive damage.”
There are also more productive ways to kill short spells of dead time – say, while commuting – rather than dreaming of how you can retire at 41. Dr. Glenville suggests counting backwards from 100 in 2s, 3s or 4s – made harder by doing something else at the same time, such as tapping your foot.
At least this kind of exercise doesn’t require Lycra and gym selfies.