The advances made in technology and medicine over in recent history has vastly expanded the life expectancy of our generation. Whilst this is a very welcome fact for many, and one which emphasises the need for a plan which extends far into your future, there’s also the other side of the coin. Because we are living longer, we are more likely to suffer from age-related memory loss and dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Men born in 1841 could expect to live to only 40.2 years and females to 42.2 years, mainly because of high mortality rates in infancy and childhood. (1) Improvements in nutrition, hygiene, housing, sanitation, control of infectious diseases and other public health measures reduced mortality rates, increasing life expectancy to 55 years for males and 59 years for females by 1920. Now, 100 years later, a man aged 65 could expect to live for another 18.6 years, while a woman could expect to live for 21 more years. (2)
According to The King’s Fund, “Healthy life expectancy has also increased, but not as much as life expectancy, so more years are spent in poor health. Although an English male could expect to live 79.6 years in 2016–18, his average healthy life expectancy was only 63.4 years – ie, he would have spent 16.2 of those years (20 per cent) in ‘not good’ health.” The Alzheimer’s Society says that “more than 520,000 people in the UK have dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease and this figure is set to rise.” (3)
For many, dementia is the worst fear for old age. Research shows that the risk of some cognitive problems is inherited. Luckily there’s also evidence that a healthy lifestyle and good medical care may help keep the mind, like the body, active and vital well into old age.
By 2040, nearly one in seven people are projected to be aged over 75. (Future of an Ageing Population, Government Office for Science, 2016)
Healthy body, healthy mind
There are many risk factors you can’t change, such as genetics and age. But there are plenty of lifestyle-related risk factors that are completely within your control.
1. Walk for 30 minutes each day
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.
It’s important to find a way of exercising that works for you. You might find it helpful to start off with a small amount of activity and build it up gradually. Even 10 minutes at a time is good for you and try to avoid sitting down for too long.
2. Eat greens, snack on nuts, and eliminate trans fats (biscuits, cakes etc.)
A healthy, balanced diet may reduce your risk of dementia, as well as other conditions including cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, stroke and heart disease.
3. Lose weight and take control of your health
Mid-life is an important time to start taking care of your health, if you’re not doing so already.
It’s important to see your GP if you’re worried about health problems such as depression, hearing loss, or not getting enough sleep. All of these might increase your risk of dementia
4. Avoid cigarettes and stay within the guided limits for alcohol
If you smoke, you’re putting yourself at much higher risk of developing dementia. You’re also increasing your risk of other conditions, including type 2 diabetes, stroke, and lung and other cancers.
Smoking does a lot of harm to the circulation of blood around the body, including the blood vessels in the brain, as well as the heart and lungs.
Drinking too much alcohol also increases your risk of developing dementia.
5. Challenge your mind and try new things
Keeping your mind active is likely to reduce your risk of dementia. Regularly challenging yourself mentally seems to build up the brain’s ability to cope with disease. One way to think about it is ‘Use it or lose it’.
Find something you like doing that challenges your brain and do it regularly. It’s important to find something that you’ll keep up.
6. Stay connected with friends and family
Talking and communicating with other people may also help to reduce your risk of dementia. Make an effort to keep in touch with the people who are important to you, such as friends and family.
A study by researchers at University College London studied 2641 people 65 years of age and older. Those living alone, the study found, were more likely to report poor health, poor vision and memory problems.
What to do if you’re worried
The Alzheimer’s Society says that “dementia is not a natural part of ageing and it doesn’t just affect older people. Over 40,000 people under 65 in the UK have dementia. This is called early-onset or young-onset dementia.”
If you are at all worried about any symptoms of dementia, it’s important to talk to your GP or seek advice from a professional body such as The Alzheimer’s Society.
It’s a good idea to have measures in place should you find yourself likely to become unable to make decisions about your own affairs. Make sure you have a Power of Attorney in place to enable you to pass on those decisions to the right people.