To continue our coverage of Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, let’s talk about some of the risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. While the most important factor—old age—is not avoidable, there are other factors associated with dementia that you can change. It’s never too late to start taking care of your brain health, so let’s dive right in to certain factors that might increase your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Diseases of the heart and blood vessels can cause Alzheimer’s to develop faster. Science has been finding more and more links between the heart and the brain. What’s good—or bad—for one, is probably the same for the other. Therefore, if you have heart disease, or at risk for it, you’re also at risk of dementia.
To protect your heart and brain, keep your blood pressure under control. Exercise regularly, and eat a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, healthy fats, and lean protein. Regarding diet, a 2013 study showed that more strictly following the Mediterranean diet was associated with better mental function and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
A large 20-year study found a correlation between having diabetes in midlife and cognitive decline later in life. Plus, participants with worse blood sugar levels had a steeper drop in mental function than those who controlled their diabetes. If you have diabetes, controlling your blood sugar is essential. You can do this with your diet and exercise—approved by your doctor—and diabetes medication if necessary. For prediabetes patients, let your diagnosis serve as a warning: if you don’t make some changes, you might end up with diabetes and dementia.
Dementia and depression are intertwined, since depression is often an early sign of Alzheimer’s. Getting a dementia diagnosis can also throw seniors into temporary or long-lasting depression. But there is evidence that depression can raise your risk of dementia. First of all, depressed people tend to withdraw from others. Since loneliness is linked with cognitive decline, that alone can raise your risk of dementia. In addition, a study found that having depression doubles your dementia risk.
Smoking and Drinking
As if we need even more reasons why smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol are bad for us. Besides for putting you at high risk of lung cancer and heart disease, smoking can also raise your risk of dementia. A 2015 analysis showed smokers have an increased risk of dementia compared to non-smokers their age. And it’s not too late to quit. The study also showed that quitting smoking immediately decreases your risk. As an aside, quitting smoking also decreases your risk of lung cancer.
Heavy drinking also puts you at risk of dementia. While there’s no evidence that light-to-moderate drinking is bad for you, heavy or binge drinking makes you three times as likely to have dementia by age 65.
Sleep is crucial for brain health. While we sleep, the brain refreshes itself, possibly washing out extracellular proteins and toxins. Not getting enough sleep leaves the brain tired and makes way for confusion. In addition, sleep apnea, which we’ve covered in a previous blog, is a serious condition that leaves sufferers sleep-deprived. Some studies showed strong evidence between sleep apnea in seniors and mental impairment. If you’re having trouble sleeping, or if you don’t feel refreshed after a night’s sleep, talk with your doctor about the possible causes.
Risk of Dementia: The Bottom Line
Dementia is a global health problem that rises every year. As more and more research comes to light, we’re getting a clearer picture on the risk factors. The main recommendations we can take out of all these studies is to live a healthy lifestyle. Eat well, exercise, don’t smoke or drink: the keys to a happy and healthy life.