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October 2, 2014

Taking Brain Health to Heart

A new report finds that one of the best ways to guard against dementia is to protect your heart.

Alzheimer’s disease is devastating for the patient and their family. There’s no cure, and there’s no good ending. But a new report suggests that it may be possible to reduce our chances of developing the disease if we know what to do and we work at it.

Several factors increase the risk of developing dementia, according to the recently-released World Alzheimer Report 2014. The report, produced by researchers at King’s College in London, is an effort to make people aware of these risks and how to reduce them.

People who currently smoke are at much greater risk of dementia.

The report's main message is simple: “What is good for your heart is good for your brain.” Good control of diabetes and high blood pressure coupled with quitting smoking and other efforts aimed at reducing the risk of heart disease — such as getting enough exercise and eating well — can also lessen mental decline in later life.

Diabetes increases the risk of developing dementia by 50 percent, according to the report. Risk factors for both diabetes and high blood pressure, such as obesity and being sedentary, are also part of the picture, and the authors of the report believe they should be target areas for Alzheimer’s prevention.

Quitting smoking is one of the most powerful ways to reduce your risk. The report found that people 65 and older who were former smokers were at about the same risk of developing dementia as someone who had never smoked. However, people who currently smoke are at much greater risk of dementia.

People with more education were found to be at lower risk for loss of mental functioning. While education itself doesn’t affect the changes in the brain that lead to dementia, it seems to lower the impact on intellectual functioning as dementia-related pathology takes place, possibly due to a more efficiently developed neural network in the brain.

Five million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the US and the only cause of death among the top 10 that cannot be cured or prevented. It is estimated that one in three older adults will die with Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia.

The number of people 65 and older with Alzheimer’s disease could triple by 2050 in the absence of any medical advancement to stop the disease, as baby boomers continue to transition into their golden years. At a current price tag of $214 billion a year including $150 billion in costs to Medicare and Medicaid, it is a major health crisis.

The study authors suggest that brain health promotion messages should be incorporated into public health promotion campaigns with the message that it’s never too late to make changes, “If we can all enter old age with better developed, healthier brains we are likely to live longer, happier and more independent lives with a much reduced chance of developing dementia.”

Their advice can be summarized in six simple steps:

  • Take steps to keep your heart healthy
  • Be physically active
  • Follow a healthy diet
  • Challenge your brain
  • Enjoy social activity
  • The complete World Alzheimer Report 2014 is available online.

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