Ageing is the biggest risk factor for dementia and can't be changed. There are however lots of things you can do to reduce your risk. It’s up to you.
It's never too late to develop good habits, but mid-life (age about 40-64) is a good time to start making healthy choices if you’re not already doing so. Many people use changes in their lives – children moving out, a health scare, divorce or starting the menopause – as a prompt to start living more healthily. You’ll find it easier to adopt a healthier lifestyle if you can build it into your normal daily routine. Get your friends and family to support you – or better yet, join you.
Based on the latest research, here are our top tips to reduce your risk of dementia. Your risk will be lowest if you can adopt several of these and not just one or two.
1. Keep physically active – for at least 30 minutes, five times a week. You’ll need to be active enough to raise your heart rate and get a bit out of breath. You could walk, cycle, swim or join an exercise or dance group. Regular physical exercise in middle-aged or older adults reduces the risk of developing dementia. It’s also good for your heart and mental wellbeing. Exercise like this brings health benefits even if you’re not losing weight.
2. Don’t smoke – if you already do smoke, try to stop. By smoking you are at a greater risk of developing dementia and harming your lungs, heart and circulation. If you want to stop smoking, talk to your GP. They can provide help and advice about quitting, and can refer you to an NHS Stop Smoking Service.
3. Eat a healthy balanced diet - A healthy diet has a high proportion of oily fish, fruit, vegetables, unrefined cereals and olive oil, and low levels of red meat and sugar. Such a diet will help reduce your risk of dementia and heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Try to cut down on saturated fat (eg cakes, biscuits, most cheeses) and limit sugary treats. Keep an eye on your salt intake too, because salt raises your blood pressure and risk of stroke. Read food labels to see what’s in them and seek out healthier options.
4. Keep your alcohol within recommended limits – and remember that these limits changed in 2016. They are now a maximum of 14 units each week for men and women, spread over 3 or more days. This is the same as four or five large glasses of wine, or seven pints of beer or lager with a lower alcohol content. Regularly exceeding these weekly limits increases your dementia risk. If you find yourself struggling to cut down what you drink, talk to your GP about what support is available.
5. Take control of your health – If you’re invited for a regular mid-life health check at the doctor’s, be sure to go. It’s like an ‘MOT’ for your body and will include a check of your blood pressure, weight and maybe cholesterol level. These are linked to dementia and conditions that are strong risk factors for dementia (heart disease, stroke and diabetes). If you’re already living with one of these long-term conditions, follow professional advice about medicines and lifestyle. If you feel that you might be getting depressed, seek treatment early.
6. Keep to a healthy weight – this will reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease – and hence probably of dementia. A good place to start is to follow the advice on exercise and diet. Keep a diary of your food intake and exercise for each day, and remember that alcohol contains hidden calories. The NHS Live Well website has lots of practical tips. Or you could join a local weight loss group. If you’ve tried to make changes without success, your GP can also offer advice.
7. Give your brain a daily workout – This could be reading, doing puzzles, word searches or crosswords, playing cards or learning something new - maybe another language. If you can keep your mind active you are likely to reduce your risk of dementia. There is a bit less evidence, but keeping socially engaged and having a good social network may also reduce your dementia risk. Visit people or have them visit you, join a club or volunteer.