Healthy Life

It is never too early, or too late, to protect against Dementia

November 14, 2022

Did you know that worldwide, there are approximately 50 million people living with dementia? What’s more, is that this figure has doubled since 1990 and by 2050, it is expected to increase to 152 million. 

Did you know that worldwide, there are approximately 50 million people living with dementia? What’s more, is that this figure has doubled since 1990 and by 2050, it is expected to increase to 152 million. 

Understanding your brain health and the contributing factors to cognitive decline has never been so important. Many of us consider cognitive decline to be something associated with ‘older age’. We focus on physical health, mental wellbeing and even cardiovascular health as prescribed by our doctors.  But we often neglect our brain health and its physiology – it is, after all, an organ, like our heart or our lungs.

Research now shows that factors contributing to the risk of dementia begin at an early age and continue throughout life. This is why shedding light and understanding the studies produced by world renowned researchers and academics is key in today’s health conversation. 

In 2020 Professor Gill Livingston, Division of Psychiatry at University College London, brought together the most recent research and studies with her associates, publishing the Dementia prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commission. The report highlights some key risk factors associated with cognitive decline and details what we can do to take action in looking after our brain health. 

The initial version of the report found that dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are associated with nine risk factors: lower education levels; hypertension; hearing impairment, smoking, depression, obesity, diabetes, physical activity and low social contact. Professor Livingston and her team then built on this with the 2020 version of the report by adding three more risk factors coming from new and convincing evidence: excessive alcohol consumption; traumatic brain injury and air pollution. By including these additional three and drawing attention to them, it is thought that 40% of dementias might be delayed and even prevented. 

The report continues to explain the science behind each risk factor, and importantly takes into account culture, race and socio-economic status: 

“Culture, poverty, and inequality are important obstacles to, and drivers of, the need for change to cognitive reserve.” 

A great example of inequality and the impact of a country’s spending power can be seen in education. Age-specific dementia has fallen in many developed countries due to the availability and affordability of effective education services, whereas in developing countries, with poorer education infrastructure, it has been shown that cognitive reserve can be affected. This reserve is the increased connectivity at the front of our brains, where we create and control our emotions, memories, decisions and motor function. Cognitive reserve can be affected due to the age at which education takes place, for in our teenage years, our brains are at their greatest level of plasticity – they are more ‘sponge-like’ and so have the power to absorb new learnings and rewire habitual patternings in an easier and more malleable way. 

Lifestyle factors including sleep, diet and exercise are just as important. We’re often told that the mediterranean diet is the best to follow, but research hasn’t yet shown that this has a direct link in protecting against dementia. What it does have is a direct link in protecting against cardiovascular disease, which in turn contributes to preventing cognitive decline. With this in mind, it’s not surprising to read that approximately 70-80% of people diagnosed with dementia have at least two other chronic illnesses. In the same breath, sleep disturbance is considered to be highly inflammatory, raising our brain chemicals which can contribute to Alzheimer’s disease and other causes of dementia. 

Smoking, air pollution and alcohol, the new risk factors, all show significant evidence in their contribution to cognitive decline. Smoking and air pollution both have toxic effects on our vascular capabilities, and the relationship with alcohol was particularly clear in early onset dementia for those drinking more than 14 units per week – approximately two glasses a day.

To continue reading and gain a much deeper understanding on the risk factors and what we can do to protect our brains against dementia , please access the full report here