This September marks the 7th annual World Alzheimer’s Month, an international campaign which was designed to increase awareness and challenge the stigma that surrounds this common, life-altering disease. Dementia affects people across all social, economic and ethnic boundaries, and recent estimates state that there are roughly 44 million people worldwide who are suffering from Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are 5.7 million Americans currently living with Alzheimer’s, but by 2050 this figure is projected to rise to almost 14 million. And consider this shocking fact: Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people than breast and prostate cancer combined.
In light of these sobering statistics, the medical and scientific communities are racing to find solutions. Not only are they looking for new ways to improve the quality of life of Alzheimer’s patients, but they are also researching how to reduce people’s risk of developing it in the first place.
While certain risk factors for dementia are unalterable–age, genetics, family history–scientists now know that there are other factors which are in our control. Here are ten concrete steps you and your loved ones can take to significantly reduce the risk of developing dementia.
1. Treat your hearing loss.
Multiple studies have made the connection between untreated hearing loss, cognitive decline, and dementia. Research suggests that even mild levels of hearing loss could heighten the long-term risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Your chances of developing dementia actually increase based on the level of your hearing loss, which means that someone with minor loss has double the risk, while someone with severe, untreated hearing loss has a five-times higher chance of developing dementia. Scientists believe that untreated hearing loss places a heavier cognitive burden on the brain, causing changes in the organ that could make it more vulnerable to developing dementia. Hearing loss has also been linked to social isolation and depression, both of which are risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease in their own right (see below). The good news is that hearing aids, which make hearing a less taxing activity for the brain, can counteract the potential negative effects of hearing loss. In short, something as simple as a hearing aid could be instrumental in protecting your future cognitive health.
2. Be a lifelong learner.
For individuals who didn’t have the chance to attend secondary school, the risk of dementia is higher, studies show. Having a low level of education can make your brain more susceptible to cognitive decline, because this results in less “cognitive reserve.” Cognitive reserve is what allows our brains to continue to function well as they age and, in some cases, accumulate beta-amyloid plaques. The upside is that lifelong learning has been shown to with improve brain health, and higher levels of cognitive activity at mid- or late-life can help to delay or prevent the onset of cognitive impairment. At any age, it’s a great idea to challenge your mind by pursuing a hobby, learning a new skill, or volunteering for a new project at work.
3. Quit smoking.
Cigarette smoke is highly toxic, and studies have shown that smokers are at higher risk for developing dementia–and a much higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s, specifically. Fortunately, giving up this vice can reduce your risk of cognitive decline. According to research, former smokers have a lower risk than current smokers, so there’s no time like the present to start quitting.
4. Seek treatment for depression.
Research suggests that depressive episodes are associated with a higher risk of dementia—and this connection appears to be the strongest in late-life. Depression may increase your stress hormones, decrease levels of proteins that are beneficial to brain cells, and shrink the hippocampus, a part of the brain essential for forming memory. If you suffer from frequent bouts of depression, it may be beneficial to talk to your doctor about antidepressants.
5. Stay active.
Exercisers are less likely to develop dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease. There are many ways that exercise might benefit brain health. It reduces chronic inflammation, increases the release of a protein that is very good for brain cells, and improves cardiovascular and metabolic health.
6. Invest in your friendships.
Less social participation, a smaller social circle, and increased loneliness have all been linked with a higher dementia risk. Social isolation may lead to decreased cognitive activity, which may speed up cognitive decline and poor mood. It is recommended that you maintain social contacts throughout life and participate in fulfilling group activities.
7. Manage your high blood pressure.
An analysis of several studies found that people who managed their hypertension had a lower risk of dementia and higher cognitive function overall than those with uncontrolled hypertension Hypertension can be managed through diet, lifestyle changes, and medications.
8.Maintain a healthy weight.
Obesity heightens the risk for diabetes and hypertension, both of which are connected with an increased risk of dementia. If you struggle with obesity, talk to your doctor and reach out to resources in your community for help with weight loss.
9. Manage your diabetes.
Diabetes, particularly Type 2, has been linked to much higher risk of dementia if it is not properly managed. A healthy diet, exercise, and weight control are the first steps of diabetes management. Though it may be difficult, effectively managing this disease is crucial for your long-term brain health.
10. Get enough sleep.
Good quality sleep is deeply tied to good health, and this includes your cognitive health. Researchers have also begun to examine whether there are effective treatments for poor sleep and if these treatments can alter dementia risk. There are many treatments that could improve the quality of your sleep–these include lifestyle changes, regular sleep regimes, eating schedules, exercise, and making sure you are exposed to bright light in the morning. If you are having sleep problems of any kind, talk to your doctor about treatment options and lifestyle changes that could be helpful.
Have your hearing tested today!
Having a hearing exam is one of the most important ways you can safeguard your cognitive health now and in the years to come. Our team at Carolina Speech and Hearing is here to help. If you’ve noticed any changes in your hearing, schedule an appointment with for a comprehensive evaluation with one of our specialists today.