Age and genetics are among the most well-known unavoidable factors that can increase the risk of dementia.
But experts have now released a definitive list of 16 more possibilities increases the likelihood that a person will develop a memory disorder.
Obesity, smoking and not getting enough exercise are some of the more obvious habits that can make you vulnerable to the syndrome, which affects almost a million Brits and seven million Americans.
But tooth loss, too little sleep and eating too much highly processed food are also on the list.
The list was compiled by Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI), a coalition of 100 Alzheimer’s associations around the world.
A new report from Alzheimer’s Disease International highlighted 16 modifiable risk factors that could influence dementia risk
Alzheimer’s disease, in which certain proteins build up in the brain and affect its function, is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for about two out of three cases.
ADI said even if just 12 of the 16 identified risk factors were addressed, 55.6 million cases of dementia could be prevented by 2050.
They warned that many studies that can point to everything from eating blueberries to drinking champagne as a way to reduce dementia risk are confusing people about what actual steps they can take to reduce their risk.
Dementia is not a disease in itself, but rather the result of another disease.
It is characterized by progressive memory loss and difficulty carrying out everyday activities, depriving people, especially older people, of their independence.
As already mentioned, Alzheimer’s is one of the main causes of the disease.
Another major cause is vascular problems, in which the blood supply to the brain is interrupted by a stroke or a series of “mini-strokes.”
There is no cure, but people can take steps to reduce the risk of developing the disease.
ADI convened a panel of respected experts to report on the latest evidence on reducing the risk of dementia.
They found a total of 16 risk factors that were within people’s control, although some are easier to target than others.
A dozen matched those already identified in a leading 2020 study published in the journal The Lancet.
Some factors affect our physical health, such as high blood pressure, obesity, excessive alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, smoking, air pollution and diabetes.
These could contribute to the risk of dementia by affecting our cardiovascular health, affecting our risk of stroke and the overall health of our brain.
Another factor that affects brain health, repeated head injuries, such as those from rugby or boxing, also appears to increase the risk of dementia.
Other factors have less physical effects on our brains, but are related to the way we use them and are linked to an increased risk of dementia.
These included hearing loss, depression, lack of education and social isolation.
But in addition to these 12, the ADI researchers identified four other risks.
One of these was a poor diet and particularly one that contained highly processed foods (UPF).
Such foods, which contain a variety of emulsifiers, preservatives and artificial flavors and sweeteners, have recently come into the spotlight after researchers discovered a possible link to their consumption and poor cardiovascular health.
While ADI highlighted a number of studies linking UPF consumption to cognitive decline, it acknowledged that the exact mechanism by which it increases dementia risk is unknown.
However, the report pointed out that UPF consumption is linked to other known risk factors for dementia such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease as a possible explanation.
Another factor identified in the ADI report was untreated vision loss.
They said, similar to hearing loss, the exact mechanism behind the increased risk of dementia is unclear.
According to theories, loss of vision causes the brain to overwork to compensate for the lack of this sense. A concept called cognitive load. Vision loss is associated with reduced opportunities for brain stimulation and an overall increased risk of social isolation and poor mental health.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. The disease can cause anxiety, confusion and short-term memory loss
Tooth loss was another dementia factor identified in the ADI report.
They cited research that found that losing one tooth was associated with a 1.1 percent higher risk of dementia, and that losing 20 teeth increased the risk to 31 percent.
Similar to treating hearing loss with hearing aids, treating tooth loss with dentures appeared to reduce the increased risk of developing dementia.
How exactly tooth loss affected the risk of dementia was unclear.
However, according to the ADI report, tooth loss could simply be an indicator of someone forgetting good oral hygiene and therefore represents an early sign of dementia rather than a cause.
However, they added that there is evidence that poor oral hygiene and a resulting increase in gum disease could lead to an overall increase in inflammation in the body, which could damage the brain.
A good night’s sleep was the last of the four factors listed in the ADI report.
While acknowledging studies are inconsistent, the ADI report suggests that poor sleep patterns in middle age could contribute to a higher risk of dementia later in life.
The ADI report cited a study of 180,000 U.S. Army veterans that found those with insomnia had a 26 percent chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease in the next eight years.
One possible explanation is that sleep helps flush out the protein buildup associated with Alzheimer’s disease. A prolonged lack of sleep inhibits this process, leading to an increase in the risk of dementia.
Despite concluding that there are 16 modifiable risk factors for dementia, ADI noted that there are “many other” habits identified by other studies that are not included in the report.
ADI chief executive Paola Barbarino said she hoped the report would help people make informed lifestyle choices to reduce their risk of dementia.
“Nearly 200 dementia diet stories are published every day, citing the latest research on everything from blueberries to champagne,” she said.
“The reality is that the conversation is far more nuanced.”
“Some of these risk factors require a degree of personal choice by the individual, such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, while others require government action, such as air quality and access to education.”
She added that while new breakthrough drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease are a source of hope for millions of people with the disease, prevention offers a way to avoid dementia now.
“The old saying goes that prevention is better than cure – and when there is no cure, risk reduction is the best tool we currently have,” she said.
“We understand it’s not always easy, but we can’t get out of this with blueberries, and there won’t be a magic pill for some time.”
Dame Louise Robinson, Professor of Primary Care and Aging at Newcastle University and co-chair of the ADI’s Medical and Scientific Advisory Board, added: “Research is increasingly showing that dementia can be delayed or even prevented by targeting our lifestyle choices such as: Target exercise and nutrition, and social connections.’
“Healthy hearts, healthy bodies and healthy brains should be our mantra.”
The ADI report also included reports from people currently living with dementia.
One of them was Emily Ong, a Singaporean woman who was diagnosed with dementia in 2017 at the age of 51.
She emphasized that measures to reduce the risk of dementia do not stop after diagnosis, as improving health status can slow the progression of the disease.
“I immediately sought advice on nutrition and ways to slow the progression and continue to live well,” she said.
“The kitchen is the heart of my home and I love cooking. That’s why I’ve adapted recipes, cooked more with the family and introduced more dementia-friendly kitchen appliances such as clear kettles.”
An estimated 900,000 people in the UK and around 7 million people in the US live with dementia.
The disease is considered a growing global health problem as people continue to live longer is placing increasing strain on healthcare systems, including in the UK.
According to Alzheimer’s Research UK, treating and caring for patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia costs the UK an estimated £25 billion each year, with the vast majority of this going towards social spending.
What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative brain disease in which the buildup of abnormal proteins causes nerve cells to die.
This disrupts the transmitters carrying messages and causes the brain to shrink.
More than 5 million people suffer from the disease in the US, where it is the sixth leading cause of death, and it affects more than 1 million Britons.
When brain cells die, the functions they provide are lost.
These include memory, orientation and the ability to think and reason.
The course of the disease is slow and insidious.
On average, patients live five to seven years after diagnosis, although some live 10 to 15 years.
- Loss of short-term memory
- Behavioral changes
- Mood swings
- Difficulty handling money or making phone calls
- Severe memory loss, forgetting close family members, familiar objects or places
- Fear and frustration over the inability to understand the world, leading to aggressive behavior
- Eventually loses the ability to walk
- May have problems eating
- The majority will require 24-hour care at some point
Source: Alzheimer’s Association