As of 2017, close to 50 million people across the globe live with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. This number is expected to almost triple by 2050, climbing to an estimated 132 million people. However, a new report recently stated that one-third of dementia cases could be prevented through better management of lifestyle factors. The new study was published in The Lancet and conducted by the first Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention and Care. It brought together 24 international experts to review existing dementia research and provide recommendations for treating and preventing the devastating condition.
Currently, there is no drug treatment to prevent or cure dementia. This study highlights the impact of non-drug treatments and identifies nine lifestyle factors that affect the likelihood of developing dementia. The analysis found that about 35% of dementia cases are attributable to the following lifestyle factors:
Not getting an education or staying in school over the age of 15
High blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes
Hearing loss in mid-life
Not getting physical exercise
Depression and social isolation
Theoretically, then, modifying these lifestyle choices and behavior could prevent one-third of dementia cases. There has been a great deal of focus on developing medication to prevent dementia. However, there are major advantages to considering lifestyle changes as a preventable approach to dementia. For example, if scientists were able to find a way to target the major genetic risk factor, this would only prevent 7% of cases. In contrast, making lifestyle changes could potentially prevent 35% of cases. Researchers identified the following as the most common factors to focus on for dementia prevention:
Education. Increasing education in early life could reduce the total number of dementia cases by 8% if all people worldwide continued their education until over the age of 15. Not completing secondary education could raise dementia risk by reducing what’s referred to as “cognitive reserve.” It’s believed that education and other mentally stimulating tasks help the brain strengthen its networks so it can continue to function at a higher level even if it starts to decline later in life.
Hearing loss. Reducing hearing loss in mid-life could reduce the total number of dementia cases by 9% if all people worldwide were treated. Research on the link between hearing loss and dementia is still in its early stages. It may be that the social isolation and depression caused by hearing loss is the actual link to dementia.
Smoking. If all people worldwide stopped smoking, this could reduce the total number of dementia cases by 5%. The study noted that it’s particularly important to stop smoking later in life to reduce neurotoxins and improve heart health, which in turn improves brain health.
The report aimed to offer guidance on ways to reduce the risk of dementia throughout life and improve the care for those living with dementia. Lifestyle modifications will not delay or prevent all cases of dementia, but the researchers hope that this study will shift the focus to more concrete ways to prevent dementia.