Can I reduce my risk of dementia?

Expert reviewer, Versha Sood Mahindra, Dementia Lead, Bupa Care Services
Next review due January 2024

We don’t always know exactly what causes people to get dementia, but there are some risk factors that we do know about. Risk factors are the things that make it more likely you’ll develop a condition.

Some risk factors for dementia are unavoidable, such as your age or genetic make-up, but many aren’t. Here we tell you what affects your risk of dementia and some of the positive things you and your family can do to reduce your risk of developing it later in life.

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Risk factors you can’t change

Age is the biggest risk factor for dementia by far. Over the age of 70 for example, the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease doubles every five years. But it’s not a natural or inevitable part of getting older.

Overall, there are more women with dementia than men. This is partly because women tend to live longer than men, but other factors such as hormones may also play a part.

Some types of dementia are more common in people of particular ethnic backgrounds. Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia are more common in black people than white people. Vascular dementia is also more common in Asian people than white people. This may be associated with the fact that this group is also at high risk for hypertension and diabetes. This could be interlinked.

For some types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, there’s an increased chance of developing it if a close family member such as a parent or sibling has it. Similarly, almost half of people with frontotemporal dementia will have a close family member with the condition too.

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Risk factors you can change

You can help to reduce your risk of dementia by eating healthily, being a healthy weight and physically active and not smoking. Making these changes can also help to prevent health conditions linked to dementia, such as diabetes, stroke and high blood pressure (hypertension).

Your diet

Eating healthily and being a healthy weight for your height can help to reduce the risk of dementia. The good news is it will help to reduce your risk of other diseases too, including heart disease and stroke.

For a healthy diet, the advice is to eat:

  • at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, as well as nuts and seeds
  • lean protein, such as chicken, eggs, tofu and fish
  • two portions of fish each week, one of which is oily fish, such as salmon or mackerel
  • wholegrain or higher fibre foods, such as wholemeal bread and whole wheat pasta
  • only small amounts of saturated fat, which means choosing lower-fat options
  • only small amounts of sugar and processed food
  • less than five grams of salt a day

Your weight

Being overweight in middle age is also particularly linked to your risk of dementia. If you’re overweight, then losing weight and keeping to a healthy weight can help to reduce your risk. The best way to do that is to follow healthy eating guidelines and be more active.

Being underweight can increase your risk of dementia too. The easiest way to find out if your weight is within the normal range is to measure your body mass index.

How active you are

Regular physical activity is strongly linked to brain health. As well as helping to reduce the risk of dementia, being active can help to reduce your stress and improve your quality of life. It can also help to prevent mental health problems such as depression. And depression later in life may increase your risk of dementia.

For good physical and mental health, you should aim to be active every day. Any activity you can do is better than none, and more is better still. UK guidelines say you should aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity, such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity, such as running, each week.

It’s easier to be regularly active if you build it into your daily life. Being active doesn’t have to just mean playing sports. Activities like housework, gardening and walking all count. Make sure you get a mix of different types of activity to help you strengthen muscles and stay flexible as well as getting your heart rate up.

Of course, getting involved in activity can be sociable and fun and it’s a great way to meet other people. As being lonely and socially isolated can also increase dementia risk, it’s another good reason to get more active.

Whether you smoke

You don’t need us to tell you that smoking is bad for you. But you may not have thought about its effect on your brain. Smoking narrows your blood vessels, which reduces the blood flow to your brain. It increases the risk of blood clots, strokes and vascular dementia. There is a link between smoking and developing Alzheimer’s disease too.

Stopping smoking is hard, but there is plenty of support available to help you quit.

How much alcohol you drink

Regularly drinking more than the recommended alcohol units each week is linked to an increased likelihood of developing dementia.

To stay healthy, it’s a good idea to have no more than 14 units of alcohol a week. That works out as around six regular glasses of wine or six pints of beer. Drinking small amounts only will also help you to keep to a healthy weight.

How mentally and socially active you are

Being connected to other people and spending time with them is one of the most important things we can do to stay healthy and well throughout life. But being socially isolated and having little contact with other people is likely to increase your chances of developing dementia. So, a healthy social life is vital to help you stay mentally and physically well.

Doing activities that make you think may also be important in helping to reduce your risk of dementia. There isn’t a great deal of evidence that ‘brain training’ could stop dementia developing. But it’s accepted that keeping mentally active is good for your brain. So, crosswords and other puzzles, learning a new skill or language will all help to keep you mentally agile. They may help to keep your brain healthy in older age.

Stopping smoking

It’s not always easy to change the habits of a lifetime. But the benefits can be huge – a whole host of diseases and conditions can be affected by the way we live. More immediately, you’ll feel fitter if you eat healthily, get enough exercise and don’t smoke.

The same lifestyle changes that can help to prevent cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes could also reduce your risk of dementia later in life. What’s more, preventing other major health problems could further help to reduce your chances of developing dementia. This is because high blood cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and diabetes are also risk factors for dementia.

Getting used to a new way of living can be hard, but support from friends and family can help. Why not make changes together? It can be easier to start something new and break habits if there are a few of you pulling together and supporting each other. And if you have children, you’ll be getting them used to a healthy lifestyle early in life.

Keep in mind some of the simple things you can do to contribute towards these changes, too. For example.

  • Reducing or stopping smoking.
  • Reducing the salt or sugar in your diet.
  • Snacking on fresh fruit instead of biscuits.
  • Using the stairs instead of the lift.
  • Joining a hobby club, or interest group.

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  • Reviewed by Sarah Smith, Freelance Health Editor, and Graham Pembrey, Bupa Head of Health Content, January 2021
    Expert reviewer Versha Sood Mahindra, Dementia Lead, Bupa Care Services
    Next review due January 2024