6 simple lifestyle changes can cut familial dementia risk nearly in half

DALLAS, Texas — If dementia runs in your family, it’s natural to fear the same symptoms developing in you. Despite these genetic risk factors, a new study finds there are still ways to make dementia onset less likely. In fact, researchers say six simple lifestyle changes can almost halve the risk of dementia, regardless of family history.

The guidelines include eating more fruits and vegetables, consuming less processed meat, quitting smoking, and only drinking in moderation. The others involve exercising more each week and sleeping longer each night.

Study authors find participants who followed just three of these behaviors reduced their dementia risk by whopping 30 percent. The findings are based on data from more than 302,000 British adults between 50 and 73 years-old.

Experts recommend people should follow as many healthy lifestyle habits possible to protect their brains as they age. A person with a parent or sibling suffering from the condition, which causes cognitive decline and memory loss, is almost 75 percent more likely to develop it.

“When dementia runs in a family both genetics and non-genetic factors, such as dietary patterns, physical activity and smoking status, affect an individual’s overall risk,” says lead author Dr. Angelique Brellenthin of Iowa State University in a media release. “This means there may be opportunities for reducing risk by addressing those non-genetic factors.”

The healthier your lifestyle, the healthier your brain stays

Study authors analyzed data on men and women in the U.K. Biobank Study who filled out questionnaires about their family history and lifestyle. The group was tracked for an average of about eight years. During that time, 1,698 participants (0.6%) received a dementia diagnosis.

Those with a family history of the disease had about a 70 percent increased risk, in line with previous research. However, following all six healthy lifestyle behaviors slashed these odds by nearly 50 percent. Participants with familial dementia who reported following at least three of the habits had a 25-35 percent lower risk in comparison to those who followed two or fewer.

Researchers note they also accounted for other common risk factors for dementia. These include age, sex, race, education, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes, and depression. The findings suggest small changes, like engaging in multiple healthy behaviors, can prevent dementia in even the most vulnerable individuals.

“It was interesting to find that participants who followed more of the healthy behaviors at baseline actually also reported more familial dementia at baseline,” Dr. Brellenthin says. “For example, there was an 11% prevalence of familial dementia among those following two or fewer healthy behaviors, compared to 15% prevalence of familial dementia among those following all six healthy lifestyle behaviors. And individuals who followed more healthy behaviors were less likely to develop dementia in general.”

The lead author notes people who know they have an increased risk of dementia may be more proactive and already take important steps to protect themselves.

“This study provides important evidence that a healthy lifestyle can have a positive impact on brain health,” adds Professor Mitchell Elkind, president of the American Heart Association and a neurologist at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “It should be reassuring and inspiring to people to know that following just a few healthy behaviors can delay cognitive decline, prevent dementia and preserve brain health.”

Dementia affects more than five million people in the United States and around 50 million people worldwide. With no cure in sight, there is an increasing focus on preventative measures, especially for those genetically prone to its development.

So what are the six easy habits to reduce dementia risk?

  • Eating a healthy diet with more fruits and vegetables, and less processed meat and refined grains
  • Meeting physical activity guidelines of 150 or more minutes a week of moderate-to- vigorous physical activity
  • Sleeping 6 to 9 hours each day
  • Drinking alcohol in moderation
  • Not smoking
  • Not having obesity, meaning a BMI (body mass index) below 30

Researchers presented their findings at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle & Cardiometabolic Health Conference 2021.

SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.