Risk factors of dementia, what can I do about them?

If you have ever walked by the Dementia Hwb in the Quadrant Centre in Swansea, you may have seen the display in the window called the 12 Modifiable Risk Factors for Developing Dementia. The full information behind it is explained below.

Lifestyle choices and general health across the lifespan leads to a level of cognitive resilience, this supports healthy brain functioning as we age and can delay symptoms of dementia, but varies between individuals. In fact, 40% of all dementia cases are caused by modifiable risk factors, whilst the remaining causes are unknown, therefore it is important to be aware of what we can control.

These can be separated into easy to change factors, lifestyle adaptations and factors which require professional support.

Easy to Change Factors:

  1. Less Education: Higher educational attainment lowers the risk of dementia and can better prepare the brain for changes brought on by dementia. However, we continue to exercise our brains, and learn new skills long after school. Engaging in puzzles, reading, listening to music, learning a new language, travelling and crafting are all great ways to keep an active brain.
  2. Social Isolation: Social isolation is linked to a higher incidence of dementia, therefore, interaction can serve as a preventative measure. Engaging with a spouse, family, friends, social groups and employment are associated with a 46% reduced risk of developing dementia. A great way of meeting new people, and taking part in meaningful productive activities is to volunteer.
  3. Physical Inactivity: Engaging in at least 45 minutes of exercise a few times per week can result in protective factors. Exercise looks and feels different to everyone, so it is important to find what suits you and what you enjoy; whether that be a morning walk, joining a gym or following along to at home routines online, it is incredibly important to keep active, especially as we age in order to maintain muscle mass and strong bones, to prevent falls.
  4. Air Pollution: Research in animals has found that frequent exposure to air pollution negatively impacts brain health, and can contribute to dementia. Although difficult to avoid, steps we can take to reduce exposure include; alternative methods of transport from driving, eating local produce, and buying second-hand; additionally in the home we can keep rooms well ventilated, dust regularly, and keep air-purifying plants. Find more ways to reduce air pollution – 20 Ways to Prevent Air Pollution | Greentumble.

Lifestyle Adaptations:

  1. Smoking: Smokers are at a higher risk of developing dementia than non-smokers, this is due to the increased risk of stroke and minor bleeds to the brain. Even frequent exposure to second-hand smoke can increase the risk. Therefore, cutting down, and being mindful of smoking around others would be beneficial. Find ways to cut down here – NHS stop smoking services help you quit – NHS (www.nhs.uk).
  2. Alcohol Consumption: Excessing alcohol use increases the risk of early-onset dementia (people under 65). Overconsumption is associated with slower reaction times, and shrinkage of the brain areas needed for learning new things, and recalling memories. This risk can arise from consuming more than or equal to 14 units per week; this can look like 6 glasses of wine, 6 peers, or 14 shots (25ml) of spirit. For support on reducing alcohol consumption visit Advice and support | Drinkaware.
  3. Hearing Loss: Midlife hearing loss can cause long-term memory supporting brain regions to deteriorate. This contributes to dementia due to reduced cognitive stimulation (if a person is unable to hear new information, they will not be able to recall it when needed). Hearing can be protected by adequate use of hearing aids. To find out how to access a free hearing test visit Hearing tests – NHS (www.nhs.uk).
  4. Obesity: Obesity is a standalone risk in later life, but is also a known contributor to diabetes and hypertension, both known to increase the risk of dementia. Older adults classified as obese who went on to lose weight displayed improved attention and memory capacity; therefore it is important to consider the effect of our physical health on our brain functioning. To access support with obesity visit Obesity – NHS (www.nhs.uk).

Factors requiring professional support:

  1. Hypertension (Chronic High Blood Pressure): Hypertension is linked to decreased brain volume, leading to a reduced performance of thinking, memory and ability to complete day-to-day tasks. To find out more on testing for high blood pressure, and support visit High blood pressure (Hypertension) – BHF.
  2. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): TBI increases the risk of developing dementia, this increases with severity and quantity of injuries, which can be commonly experienced by contact sport players. Nearer to the time of the injury there is an increased risk which can lead to the emergence of early-onset dementia. Therefore, it is essential to always seek medical support following a head injury. To find out more visit Head injury, sport and dementia | Alzheimer’s Society (alzheimers.org.uk)
  3. Diabetes: Diabetes and dementia can co-occur, with the length and severity of diabetes both raising the risk of dementia. According to research, some patients who took medications specifically for their diabetes saw less cognitive impairment than those who did not, therefore it is important to appropriately manage diabetes, visit Living with diabetes | How to manage diabetes | Diabetes UK for more information.
  4. Depression: Depressive episodes, particularly in later life are associated with an increased risk of developing dementia. Recommended mood boosters include; sharing your feelings, maintaining a routine, self-compassion, and taking part in hobbies you enjoy. If symptoms do not alleviate over time, visit your GP to discuss treatment options. Mental health support can be found at Mental health – NHS (www.nhs.uk), Guides to mental health support and services – Mind, Samaritans | Every life lost to suicide is a tragedy | Here to listen.

Take home message…

Key recommendations are to maintain a balanced diet, engage in regular exercise, keep an active brain, cut down on nicotine and alcohol consumption, seek support from friends, family or peer support groups and follow GP and specialist guidelines.

Article by Abigail Davies

Key Reference: Livingston, G., Huntley, J. M., Sommerlad, A., Ames, D., Ballard, C., Banerjee, S., Brayne, C., Burns, A., Cohen-Mansfield, J., Cooper, C., Costafreda, S. G., Dias, A., Fox, N. C., Gitlin, L. N., Howard, R., Kales, H. C., Kivimäki, M., Larson, E. B., Ogunniyi, A., . . . Mukadam, N. (2020). Dementia prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commission. The Lancet, 396(10248), 413–446. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(20)30367-6

You Are Not Alone

Remember, you are not alone. If you have concerns about your memory, care for someone with dementia or are looking for additional information and advice the Dementia Hwb is here for you. You can visit the Hwb 7 days a week between 11am-3pm, call us on 01792 304519 or email us on support@dementiafriendlyswansea.org. We can also offer memory assessments with the Community Memory Support Team for Swansea Bay University Health Board. This is not a diagnosis but instead designed for people without a diagnosis who are worried about their memory to see if they need further referral to a GP or alternate memory test.