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How we live today shapes our life in the future

Julien Bertherat with Callum Georgallides.

New research suggests that how active we are today and our approach to living a healthy lifestyle can have a marked impact on our chances of being affected by dementia as we get older.

The research also suggests that following a reasonable number of lifestyle behaviours can have a positive effect on our health, mobility and mental agility as we age.

While our propensity to develop dementia is partly genetic, other significant factors are within our control, according to the research.

Experts in the US have recently discovered that being active, eating a healthy diet, maintaining sensible body weight and normal blood pressure, controlling cholesterol and having low blood sugar are all key to staying healthy and reducing the risk of conditions such as Alzheimer's disease.

The researchers followed 13,720 middle-aged women for 20 years and discovered through this that the more healthy lifestyle factors the women had, the less likely they were to develop dementia. Each of these factors on their own was found to lower this risk by around six per cent, suggesting that adopting them all could bring down the chances of dementia by 42 per cent.

“Since we now know that dementia can begin in the brain decades before diagnosis, it's important that we learn more about how your habits in middle age can affect your risk of dementia in old age,” according to Dr Pamela Rist, an assistant professor from Brigham and Women's Hospital, in Boston, Massachusetts. “The good news is that making healthy lifestyle choices in middle age may lead to a decreased risk of dementia later in life.”

In the UK today, there are currently 900,000 people living with dementia, with these numbers set to grow moving forward. Symptoms of dementia typically include memory loss, confusion, and problems with language, and these can eventually lead to death.

Different population-wide studies, however, suggest that incidences of dementia are falling, which some researchers argue is a result of lifestyle changes (people quitting smoking and making improvements to their heart health, driven by statin use, for example).

More recently, the American Heart Association has developed a list of lifestyle interventions (termed Life’s Simple 7) that can help people cut their risk of heart attacks and strokes. These healthy traits are never having smoked (or having quit more than 12 months ago) and maintaining a healthy BMI (18.5 - 25kg/m2). Physical activity must also include at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise.

In addition, our diet should include at least 4.5 cups of fruit and vegetables per day, two servings of fish per week, three servings of whole grains per day, no more than one litre of sugar-sweetened drinks per week, and 1,500 mg of sodium per day (about two-thirds of a teaspoon of salt).

Finally, total cholesterol must be less than 200 mg/dL, blood pressure less than 120 mmHg/80 mmHg and blood sugar less than 100 mg/dL.

The researchers found that during the study 1,771 women developed dementia (around 13 per cent, or one in seven).

For each of the health factors above, participants in the study were given one point for each regular healthy lifestyle factor, with the average score being 4.3 at the start of the study, falling to 4.2 after a decade.

After adjusting for factors such as age and education, researchers found that for every increase of one point, a person's risk of dementia fell by six per cent, which means that if a person started with a 1 in 7 risk, it would fall to 1 in 13 if they achieved all of the healthy lifestyle options.

According to Rist, “It can be empowering for people to know that by taking steps such as exercising for half an hour a day or keeping their blood pressure under control, can reduce their risk of dementia.”

In addition, experts from University College London (UCL) also recently argued that staying active throughout adulthood could help stave off dementia. Their study discovered that people who exercise as they age are more likely to have better brain health than those who take up an activity for shorter periods but then give it up.

I have written about super-ageing, as it is known, previously and why, in my opinion, it is important to follow a healthy diet and exercise as we age. Some people view this as being about strengthening the physical, which is important, but it is also about the mental, as both work (or should work!) in harmony.

By exercising regularly, being sensible in what we eat, and also developing and following a positive, optimistic mental attitude, we strengthen ourselves to enjoy our lives, explore the world around us and extend our independent life. By falling back, eating unhealthy (which in itself is ageing as it robs our bodies of the nutrients we need to live) and following a sedentary life, we weaken ourselves, slip away from the world around us and fall ever inward in our thinking.

Or, to put it another way, we allow ourselves to become weaker, which in turn makes us vulnerable to injury and disease.

So, choose strength over weakness and embrace the opportunities that a healthy and active lifestyle offers, as doing so will not only stave off deterioration but will also make life worth living.

Which is the name of the game, is it not?


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