WAKE UP: Time to make some lifestyle changes now to fight dementia.
WAKE UP: Time to make some lifestyle changes now to fight dementia. istock

Wake up call to change habits to combat dementia

IF WE chose to change the way we live we can help make a big difference to the groundswell of reported cases of dementia in Australia.

Close to 50 per cent of these dementia cases can be attributed to seven lifestyle factors. Researchers from the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research (CEPAR) tell us their newly released findings show Australians need to do something now about midlife hypertension, diabetes, low educational attainment, smoking, physical inactivity, mid-life obesity and depression to combat or slow the onset of dementia.

Of these seven modifiable lifestyle factors identified by the researchers from CEPAR and Neuroscience Research Australia, the top four are activity, diet, cognitive abilities and health.

  • Get physically active - there's no surprises that this is top of the list. We are constantly reminded to get out and about, use our bodies - not just once, but often.  
  • Lose weight - obesity isn't just an issue for younger generations.  Getting active and reducing our weight are close to equal on the list of key modifiable lifestyle changes we must make to help improve our chance of fending off dementia
  •  Third on the list is low education attainment. "We tendto  find higher levels of education is somewhat protective," lead researcher Professor Kaarin Anstey said. "It doesn't prevent you getting dementia. It may mean you develop problems a bit later." So, keeping our brain active through lifelong learning can be a very effective protective factor.
  • Reducing midlife hypertension, or high blood pressure, in middle-age will increase your risk of dementia as you age.
WAKE UP: Dementia risk factors proportions.
WAKE UP: Dementia risk factors proportions. NeuRA

Next on the list in decreasing order are depression, smoking and diabetes mellitus. "Type 2 diabetes has been shown to increase the risk of late life dementia," Professor Anstey said. "There are a lot of studies showing this now."

Many of these factors are accumulative. So, if you have them from your early years and into your 60s, you have a higher chance of getting dementia. "A lot of these factors operate very slowly in the background," Professor Anstey.

While other risk factors such as genetics and some medical conditions can't be controlled, these seven lifestyle factors can be controlled and "you should start now".

"We have seen improvements in brain ageing in people who have given up smoking in their seventies," Professor Anstey said. "We have seen improvements in people who already have got cognitive impairments who start to exercise.

"At all ages we should be adopting a healthier lifestyle. It's never too late," Professor Anstey reminds us.  

FINANCIAL FRAGILITY: Dementia and depression are correlated to poor financial decision-making.
FINANCIAL FRAGILITY: Dementia and depression are correlated to poor financial decision-making. NeuRA

The Cognitive ageing and decline: Insights from recent research report also identified financial frailty as a key outcome from this dementia research. CEPAR director, Scientia Professor John Piggott said people with cognitive impairment are more susceptible to poor financial decision-making.

"Our retirement income system is very complex and requires a lot of active decisions," Professor Piggott said. "We are only beginning to think about how population ageing will affect the decision-making ability of older cohorts and what insights psychology and behavioural finance can bring."


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