How to keep your mind sharp

Jessica Smith, a research officer with Alzheimer's Society, shares some expert advice on reducing the risk of developing dementia.

Is dementia an inevitable part of the ageing process?

“It's definitely not a normal part of ageing, which is why only some people develop dementia at all. Dementia is actually a result of diseases of the brain which cause changes. These changes result in the death of brain cells and it gets to a point at which you've lost too many and that's why you see the symptoms that you do.”

What can people do to help prevent dementia?

“There are things that you can do to reduce the risk. A lot of the advice is lifestyle guidance and this is what we tend to focus on as those are the things that you can change. Age is the biggest risk factor, and genetics will inevitably play a role, but you can't do anything to change those, so we tend to focus on giving people information about things that they can actually change. It gives people more control.

“Dementia is not an inevitability and people can definitely do things to reduce their risk. That's not to say, however, that people doing all of these things won't develop dementia – but it gives them a better chance of not developing it.”

So what lifestyle tips do you recommend to help prevent dementia?

“A lot of them are similar to other conditions – like regular exercise. The biggest evidence is around regular exercise; it seems to provide the best protection. And a healthy diet – a Mediterranean diet has the best evidence around it, so lots of fish, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, not much saturated fat, not much refined or processed food.”

In terms of general health, what should people keep an eye on?

“Things like maintaining good blood pressure and cholesterol levels. We recommend that people over the age of 40 get these checked regularly, because we know that high blood pressure and cholesterol restrict the amount of blood getting through to the brain. You can ask at your GP surgery, and some pharmacies even test as well. So it's about maintaining those healthy levels – monitoring them and getting them altered if possible, either by lifestyle changes or perhaps medication.

Does smoking increase the risk of dementia?

“Smoking dramatically increases your risk, so not smoking is very much key. The World Health Organization recently did a major study to look at the evidence and they think that 14 percent of cases of dementia are a result of smoking. It potentially doubles your risk of developing the disease.”

Does drinking alcohol increase the risk of dementia?

“Problem drinking, i.e. excessive drinking, has been linked to dementia. All the way from early and middle age, so it's not just problem drinking in people who are older and at risk anyway. It's people who are developing those habits and problem drinking even in mid life.

“But there is this weird situation where the evidence points towards it actually reducing your risk if you drink alcohol occasionally. So people who have the odd drink are at a reduced risk compared with people who don't drink at all.

“Alcohol is fine if you have the occasional drink, just don't problem drink. Don't binge drink, don't get so drunk that you forget things, or injure yourself and wind up in A&E, or people get worried about you.”

Is anything else known to help?

“There is advice around mental stimulation as well, which is unique to dementia. All the other advice is the same for heart disease and cancer, and other chronic conditions. But mental stimulation is quite important. There are things that you can do even earlier in life that will have an affect – so a good education in the first instance. But also just being mentally stimulated: lifelong learning (perhaps you might do evening classes); having a mentally-demanding job; reading a lot; doing a lot of puzzles or problem-solving. That sort of thing.”

Further information

You can find out more about the risk factors for dementia on the Alzheimer's Society website.

If you have concerns about Alzheimer's disease or about any other form of dementia, Alzheimer's Society National Dementia Helpline 0300 222 1122 can provide information, support, guidance and signposting to other appropriate organisations.