Dementia affects 47 million people all over the world, and every year, another 9.9 million more diagnoses are made – two-thirds of which are women. It’s a complex syndrome whose causes are many and interlinked, and whose symptoms of memory loss and cognitive degradation vary in severity and pace of onset from person to person.
Treatments vary in effectiveness, but at present, it remains a debilitating problem that progressively destroys a person’s ability to live a normal life. A new review of the most cutting-edge research in the Lancet, however, concludes with a stark revelation: Around one-in-three cases of dementia can be avoided if nine key risk factors are avoided or mitigated against earlier on in life.
As reported by BBC News, and as presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London this week, these nine factors all contribute to the onset of dementia. Ranked in order of highest to lowest risk, they are:
- Mid-life hearing loss (9 percent of the risk)
- Not completing secondary-level/high school education (8 percent)
- Smoking (5 percent)
- Not seeking treatment for depression in youth (4 percent)
- Physical inactivity (3 percent)
- Social isolation (2 percent)
- High blood pressure (2 percent)
- Obesity (1 percent)
- Type 2 diabetes – the more common variant linked to obesity (1 percent)
Although dementia begins to become symptomatic in later life, these exacerbating factors gradually weaken the brain’s network and pave the way for the syndrome decades earlier.
Together, these factors represent 35 percent of the risk, meaning that focusing on them could lead to a third of all dementias being prevented. At the same time, the global cost of dementia – currently at $818 billion – could be dramatically slashed.
Overall, as with plenty of diseases and conditions, it appears that a healthy lifestyle is the key to a long and uninhibited life.
The rest of the risk – 65 percent – is currently beyond a person’s control, and includes factors such as the buildup of clumps of protein in the brain (a leading cause of Alzheimer’s), genetic mutations that lead to brain damage, and so on.
At a glance, there are some seemingly curious inclusions on this list – most notably, hearing loss. The researchers argue that a lack of a rich, audible environment denies people a form of cognitive processing that many others have. This can also lead to increased social isolation and depression, all of which contribute towards the onset of dementia.
Other factors are more obvious, particularly educational level. Far from just stopping there, the 24 international experts behind the report explain that keeping up learning and education in later life will drastically reduce the risk of getting dementia.
Despite being left out of this analysis, it’s likely that excessive alcohol consumption and having an unhealthy diet also contribute towards a dementia diagnosis.
The report urges the world to “be ambitious about prevention”. Dementia does not have to be an “inevitable consequence of reaching retirement age.”
By 2050, around 150 million people could be living with dementia. Although “dementia is the greatest global challenge for health and social care in the 21st century,” the researchers explain that by considering these nine risk factors, this future could be avoided.
“Delaying dementia for some years for even a small percentage of people would be an enormous achievement and would enable many more people to reach the end of life without developing dementia,” they conclude.