Seven healthy habits in middle age 'may cut dementia risk' for women, study suggests

Experts have isolated habits that could affect risk of developing dementia in old age

Habits such as being active, eating a better diet and maintaining a healthy weight all cut the risk of dementia, the research showed. PA
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A long-term study suggests that adopting seven healthy habits in middle age may help cut the risk of dementia for women.

Being active, eating a better diet, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, keeping normal blood pressure, controlling cholesterol and having low blood sugar may all cut the chances of developing conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, experts found in a two-decade-long study.

The study has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal and will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting in Boston.

“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,” said Pamela Rist, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

“The good news is that making healthy lifestyle choices in middle age may lead to a decreased risk of dementia later in life.”

The study involved 13,720 women with an average age of 54 at the start of the research.

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After 20 years of follow-up, researchers looked at US health data to identify those who had been diagnosed with dementia.

About 1,771 women, or 13 per cent of those in the study, developed dementia.

For each of the seven health factors, people were given a score of zero for poor or “intermediate” health, and one point for ideal health, leading to a total possible score of seven.

The average score was 4.3 at the start of the study and 4.2 a decade later.

After adjusting for factors such as age and education, researchers found that for every increase of one point in the score, a person’s risk of dementia fell by 6 per cent.

“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, they can reduce their risk of dementia,” Ms Rist said.

Dementia is a group of symptoms that get worse over time and include memory loss, confusion, problems with language and needing help with daily living.

The new study was supported by the US National Institutes of Health.

The researchers said there were limitations to their study, including the fact they were unable to look at how factors such as quitting smoking influenced the risk of dementia later in life.

“This large study adds to the overwhelming evidence that by being active and eating healthily in middle age, women can reduce their chances of dementia in later life,” Susan Mitchell, head of policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said.

“Dementia affects everyone but women are far more likely to develop it than men and it’s now the leading cause of death among British women.

“Whatever our gender, we can all take simple steps to reduce our risk of dementia.

“Beyond being active and looking after our heart, getting a good night’s sleep, challenging our brain and keeping connected to the people around us can all help reduce our chances of developing dementia.

“We’d encourage anybody who would like to know more about their own brain healthy behaviours to complete Alzheimer’s Research UK’s online Think Brain Health Check-in.”

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Richard Oakley, associate director of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, said the charity would like to see the study’s full results.

“Although getting older is the biggest risk factor in developing dementia, this research has shown once again that there are things that people can do to lower their risk,” he said.

“Whilst several risk factors like age and genetics are outside of our control, this preliminary study supports existing evidence that lifestyle factors play a role in dementia risk.”

Last week, experts from University College London said that staying active throughout adulthood could help stave off dementia.

Their long-term study found that people who exercise as they age are more likely to have good brain health than those who take up an activity for shorter periods of time but then give it up.

In the UK, it is estimated that about 850,000 people have dementia.

There were more than 55 million people worldwide living with dementia in 2020.

Updated: February 27, 2023, 9:23 PM