Scientists predict that access to education will reduce one’s risk of dementia, while other lifestyle factors, like smoking and diet, will contribute to the number of cases worldwide by 2050.
Around the world, the number of people living with dementia is expected to triple by 2050. However, this prediction is not without its caveats — nor is it without reasons to be hopeful. There are several global trends and lifestyle choices that will affect this number, many of which are within a person’s control.
During the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) this week, scientists are presenting proposals that examine why dementia cases are expected to rise, and how individuals, healthcare providers, and policymakers can help offset these numbers.
While it is widely believed that a major contributor to the rise in people diagnosed with dementia is a globally aging population — aging being a factor beyond anyone’s control — other risk factors are not beyond control: mitigating air pollution, expanding access to education, improved care around health factors like smoking and hypertension, and adopting healthy lifestyle practices like exercise and a healthy diet.
In an interview with Rebecca Edelmayer, director of scientific engagement at Alzheimer’s Association, she explained that “positive trends in global education access are expected to decrease dementia prevalence worldwide by 6.2 million cases while trends in smoking, high body mass index, and high blood sugar are predicted to increase prevalence by nearly the same number: 6.8 million cases.”
According to Emma Nichols, the presenting author of one of the conference’s study, these predictions are based on dementia prevalence from 1990-2019 and three main risk factors attributed to the disease.
Edelmayer urges that effective treatments, culturally tailored interventions, and major policy are necessary to prevent these numbers from surging even higher. However, scientific breakthroughs, drug approvals, and new legislation won’t happen overnight, which is why experts emphasize that it is important that individuals consider adjusting their lifestyle to help reduce their own risk of dementia.
Improving access to education
It’s well understood that access to education and physical health are contributors to dementia risk, so it’s important to understand why, and what a person can do for themselves — and with the help of their physician — to lessen the likelihood of being diagnosed with dementia. Experts at the AAIC will discuss this week how the importance of education is two-fold.
First, scientists believe education builds up a person’s “cognitive reserve”, or resilience to damage in the brain. Connections between brain cells naturally fray with aging, but a greater cognitive reserve may help offset that loss. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to go back to school — though a recreational class or continuing education course could be effective. Experts suggest that engaging in intellectual activities such as reading, playing games or with puzzles, and physical and social outings, can help preserve cognition in older age.
The other benefit of education is that increased access to it may lead to a better understanding of health education and how a person’s lifestyle choices affect their health. For instance, a person may understand the widely reported risks of smoking, such as lung and cardiovascular disease, but they may not know that smoking, as well as diabetes, may lead to brain calcification.
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Controlling health factors like diabetes and smoking
According to researchers, smoking and diabetes likely increase dementia risk because they can impede the function of blood vessels, leading to strokes and brain bleeds, which are in turn dementia risk factors. Studies have also found that diabetes and smoking are linked to other problems, like disruption to body’s ability to use glucose, or calcium build-up in the hippocampus (hippocampal calcification), which is the part of the brain that helps store short- and long-term memories. The good news: studies show that stopping or reducing smoking may help to reduce dementia risk.
Eating a healthier diet
There are a variety of studies and theories on which dietary choices are best for reducing dementia and Alzheimer’s risk. The general consensus is that a healthy diet that includes green leafy vegetables, whole grains, berries, and fish, may reduce a person’s dementia risk; it will also contribute to, with the help of regular exercise, a lower BMI and risk of obesity. However, some studies have shown there is a strong link between a Mediterranean diet (fish, olive oil, vegetables) and better brain health, whereas others believe a diversity in the types of healthy foods a person eats and how they’re combined might be even more helpful. Mounds of evidence support that high-fat diets and processed sugars harm health overall — and in many ways, that can lead to an increase in dementia risk.
All of these risk factors come back to education — and fortunately, building one’s “cognitive reserve” can be done through continued learning — and that could include researching different diets, making new recipes, or even taking cooking classes — anything that engages your brain.
So, while the expectation that dementia cases will triple over the next 30 years, experts say there is still plenty a person can do to reduce their own risk and help bring down that number.