Getting older can be a frightening prospect, especially when it comes to one particular health concern: dementia. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the U.K.’s Alzheimer’s Society, over 55 percent of people put off dementia screening for at least a year for fear of being diagnosed. Sixty-two percent of respondents “felt a diagnosis would mean their life was over.”
Yet for all that worry—not to mention the urging of health authorities—relatively few people take proactive measures to maintain their neurological health. Now, experts say there’s one simple thing you can do to slash your dementia risk by 30 percent and your Alzheimer’s risk by 45 percent. Read on to learn how you can take your cognitive health into your own hands, and which other interventions can lower your risk factors even further.
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While there is no one way to guarantee a dementia-free future, experts say several things can lower your risk. Useful interventions include maintaining a healthy diet and weight, quitting smoking, and keeping your alcohol consumption under the recommended limit, says the U.K.’s National Health Services (NHS).
Additionally, it’s important to avoid or treat any health conditions that raise your risk of heart disease, stroke, or diabetes, since these are known to increase your dementia risk. Maintaining healthy blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels is key to reducing your dementia risk.
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In addition to these other interventions, there’s one more easy way to slash your dementia risk—and it appears to be the most effective one of all. “Doing regular physical activity is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of dementia. It’s good for your heart, circulation, weight and mental wellbeing,” writes the Alzheimer’s Society, noting that both aerobic activity and strength training are beneficial. “Each type will keep you fit in different ways. Doing a combination of these activities will help you to reduce your risk of dementia.”
In fact, a study which looked at the health habits of 2,235 men in Wales over the course of 35 years learned that when compared to not smoking, moderate alcohol intake, healthy body weight, and healthy diet, regular exercise had the single greatest impact on one’s chances of developing dementia.
However, taking a comprehensive approach to lowering dementia risk is still advised, rather than focusing on just one factor. The study concluded that subjects who followed four or all five of these interventions were 60 percent less likely to later develop dementia.
The Alzheimer’s Society notes that getting regular exercise during middle age is especially protective against dementia later on. “Several prospective studies have looked at middle-aged people and the effects of physical exercise on their thinking and memory in later life,” their experts write. “Combining the results of 11 studies shows that regular exercise can significantly reduce the risk of developing dementia by about 30 percent,” they explain, noting that Alzheimer’s risk was reduced by 45 percent.
The NHS recommends that you “follow the recommended guidelines of doing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, such as brisk walking, cycling, or dancing. You should also do strengthening exercises at least twice a week, such as gardening or yoga.”
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Though many researchers have focused on the long-term, brain-boosting benefits of exercise, some studies suggest that you may be able to see improvements in as little as one month.
“In the short term, aerobic exercise can also improve the performance of healthy adults on thinking tests,” says Alzheimer’s Society. “Pulling together the results of 29 clinical trials, a month or more of regular aerobic exercise resulted in improvements in memory, attention, and processing speed when compared with regular non-aerobic exercise such as stretching and toning.”
Speak with your healthcare provider if you have any questions about how to safely begin a new exercise regimen.