Study attributes 76% of cognitive decline due to lifestyle

Lifestyle is responsible for about three quarters of brain ageing – but there are “simple and effective ways” to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, according to analysis.

A review of academic studies and data by Age UK shows that about 76% of cognitive decline – changes in thinking skills with age including memory loss and speed of thinking – is accounted for by lifestyle and other factors, including level of education.

The charity’s review, which included the latest international dementia studies, indicates that certain lifestyle factors such as regular physical exercise, eating a Mediterranean diet, not smoking and drinking alcohol in moderation decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

While preventing and treating diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity were also found to reduce the risk of dementia.

One UK study carried out over 30 years found that men aged between 45 and 59 who followed four to five of the identified lifestyle factors were found to have a 36% lower risk of developing cognitive decline and a 36% lower risk of developing dementia than those who did not.

Age UK’s evidence review also revealed that physical exercise was the most effective way to ward off cognitive decline in healthy older people and reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Studies suggest that exercise three to five times a week for between 30 minutes and an hour is beneficial.

But the evidence review also showed that a healthy diet, moderate alcohol intake and not smoking also play a role in ensuring healthy brain ageing as well as reducing the risk of developing dementia.

It found that there are significantly more new cases of Alzheimer’s among current smokers compared with those who have never smoked.

The review also backed up claims that very heavy drinking is also linked to dementia, resulting in the loss of brain tissue particularly in the parts of the brain responsible for memory and processing and interpreting visual information.

Moderate levels of alcohol, however, were found to protect brain tissue by increasing good cholesterol and lowering bad cholesterol.

According to the latest estimates, there are 850,000 people in the UK living with dementia. It will affect one in three people over the age of 65.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director of Age UK, said: “While there’s still no cure or way to reverse dementia, this evidence shows that there are simple and effective ways to reduce our risk of developing it to begin with.

“What’s more, the changes that we need to make to keep our brains healthy are already proven to be good for the heart and overall health, so it’s common sense for us all to try to build them into our lives. The sooner we start, the better our chance of having a healthy later life.”

Age UK is funding the University of Edinburgh’s The Disconnected Mind project which is investigating how thinking skills alter with age and what influences those changes.

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