Can a healthier lifestyle reduce your risk of dementia?

New research from an international team of dementia researchers, led by Exeter Medical School, has found that following a few simple lifestyle choices may help to prevent dementia – particularly in people who have a higher genetic risk of developing the condition. Find out what this means for you.

You might have seen interest in the media about this study. This article will explain what the study found, and what it means for you, if you're concerned about developing dementia.

What did the study do?

The research team wanted to see if basic healthy lifestyle choices might reduce the risk of developing dementia. They used data from nearly 200,000 people who had taken part in the UK Biobank study.

The behaviours were:

  • Not smoking

  • Not drinking too much alcohol

  • Eating a wide range of healthy foods

  • Regular physical activity for at least a few hours each week

All these risk factors have been linked with a lower risk of dementia.

Regular physical activity can help to reduce your risk of dementia.

This study was specifically looking at people who have genes that increase their risk of developing dementia. The study was trying to find out if the impact of healthy behaviours might be different for these people.

Before we go any further, it’s important to point out that this study only looked at ‘risk’ genes. It didn’t look at the types of dementia passed down through families, known as familial dementias. These are generally very rare and only cause a very small proportion of all cases of dementia. Find out more about the rare inherited form of dementia here.

In this study the researchers looked at the genes of people over 60 years’ old and estimated each person’s genetic risk of developing dementia, based on previous data.

By themselves, each individual gene only has a small effect on a person’s risk of developing dementia.  But, if you have lots of the genes together, you might have a higher risk than someone who doesn't have so many of these genes.

The researchers separated the participants into high, medium, and high genetic risk groups, depending on how many 'risk' genes they had.

What did they find?

The biggest reduction in risk was in the 'high genetic risk' group (about 1 in 5 people in the study). When these people had healthier lifestyles, they reduced their risk of dementia by about one third.

People who had healthier lifestyles in the ‘medium’ genetic risk group (about 3 in 5 people) managed to reduce their risk of dementia by about 20%. This isn't as much as people in the ‘high risk’ group.

What does this mean for me?

What the study shows is that following a few simple lifestyle choices may help to reduce your risk of developing dementia.

It also shows that if you have a high risk of dementia because of your genes, you may be able to reduce some of this extra risk by following some basic healthy lifestyle choices.

The healthy lifestyle in the study included no smoking, drinking alcohol in moderation, eating a wide range of healthy foods, and taking part in some kind of moderate or high-intensity physical activity for a few hours each week (this is activity that leaves you out of breath, increases your heart rate and makes you sweat). If you are doing this, then you are already doing well to reduce your chances of developing dementia. The earlier in life you can do these things, the better.

We also know from other studies that these lifestyle factors can reduce the risk of other health conditions too, including type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease – all of which can contribute to dementia risk. So making these choices may have real benefits for your future health.

Will having a healthier lifestyle definitely stop me from developing dementia?

Unfortunately not. There is only so much that any one individual person can do to reduce their risk of dementia. The biggest risk factor by far for dementia is old age. The fact that we are all living longer is one of the main reasons why dementia is such a growing health and social care issue.

The older a person becomes, the greater their risk of developing dementia.

We have learned a great deal about what causes dementia in recent years but there is still a great deal we don’t yet understand. Factors other than lifestyle and genetics may also contribute to dementia risk – for example a history of traumatic brain injury, exposure to air pollution, or even some kinds of infections.

Researchers are continuing to explore all the potential causes of dementia in different people. By doing this, we can reduce the number of people affected by the condition in the future. 

Where can I get more information on reducing my risk of dementia?

We have information about risk factors for dementia here. which explains how someone can reduce their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. You can learn more about other ways to reduce your risk too – including some risk factors not covered by the study. 

The NHS has some excellent LiveWell resources to help people to be more physically active and eat a healthier diet: 

Join dementia research

Do you want to take part in research about dementia? Join Dementia Research helps people with dementia, their carers, or anyone interested in dementia research to be matched to studies taking place in their area.

Find out about taking part in research
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3 comments

Add your own

my dad never smoked, didn't drink much ate well and was fit didn't make ant difference for him

My wife stopped smoking 54 years ago, drank very little alcohol, a lot of food came out of the garden and we were always very active.
The A5 main road was just 50m away, now bypassed, when she was diagnosed @ 63yo, now 75 and still lives at home but very debilitated.
Her only risk factor would appear to have been the busy A5.

I am learning more and more each time I read a bit of the course about dementia

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