Be physically active – Regular moderate physical exercise is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of dementia, raise your cardiovascular health and improve your mental wellbeing. ‘Regular’ means exercising five times each week for 30 minutes each time. You can build up to this gradually. ‘Moderate’ exercise means doing an activity that leaves you a bit out of breath, raises your heart rate and may make you slightly sweaty. Exercising like this brings many health benefits even if you’re not losing weight. Activities could include brisk walking, cycling, swimming or dancing. You don’t have to go to a gym or run a marathon. You could join a walking group, try a class at your leisure centre, or go dancing with friends. Try cycling to work, walking the children to school, getting off the bus two stops earlier and walking or taking the stairs instead of the lift. There are now lots of wearable gadgets or smartphone apps which record how active you’ve been.
Stop smoking – If you do smoke, stop. It is better to stop smoking sooner (or better still, to never start) but it is never too late to quit. Even if you stop smoking in later life it will benefit your overall health and may reduce your risk of dementia. NHS Stop Smoking advisers can provide information, advice and support on how to quit. You might be able to refer yourself, or talk to your GP or local pharmacy for advice. Many people now use e-cigarettes, which provide nicotine without the harmful tobacco smoke, to help them quit smoking. For more information about quitting call the NHS Go Smokefree helpline on 0300 123 1044.
Eat healthily – A healthy balanced diet includes lots of fruit and vegetables. Aim for five portions a day. Fresh, frozen and tinned fruit and vegetables all count. A healthy diet also has fish at least twice a week, including oily fish (eg mackerel, salmon, sardines) which contains healthy polyunsaturated (omega-3) fatty acids and vitamin D. Adding starchy foods (eg potatoes, brown rice, pasta, bread) and protein (eg meat, fish, eggs, beans) will also help you maintain a balanced diet. Following a ‘Mediterranean’ kind of diet is good for your cardiovascular health and may reduce your dementia risk. This diet is high in vegetables, fruit and cereals. Fats are mainly unsaturated (eg olive oil) with very little saturated fat (eg cakes, biscuits, butter, most cheeses). A Mediterranean diet also has some fish, poultry, eggs and dairy, but only a small amount of red or processed meat. To eat healthily, limit sugary treats such as fizzy drinks and sweets and keep an eye on your salt intake, especially salt hidden in bread, pizza and ready meals. Read the labels on foods to see what they contain or look for healthier (reduced fat or salt) options. Speak to your doctor or pharmacist if you are thinking of taking a vitamin or mineral supplement.
Maintain a healthy weight – Keeping to a healthy weight will reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease – and hence probably of dementia. As well as weight, keep an eye on your waistline, as fat round your middle is particularly unhealthy. A good starting point is to follow the advice on physical exercise and maintain a healthy diet. Keep a diary of your food intake and exercise for each day – you are more likely to lose weight if you burn off what you eat. Visit the NHS Live Well pages for ideas, such as eating smaller portions at mealtimes. Alcohol contains hidden calories, so be aware of how much you drink. You could also consider joining a local weight loss group. If you’ve tried to make changes without success, your GP can also offer advice.
Drink alcohol within recommended levels (if at all) – If you do drink, keep below the recommended NHS levels. These changed in 2016 and are now a maximum of 14 units each week for men and women, spread over three or more days. This is the same as four or five large glasses of wine over the week, or seven pints of beer or lager with lower alcohol content. To check how much you’re drinking, record your units over the week – and be honest. If you want to cut down, set yourself a limit for each time you drink (and keep to it). You can also try smaller glasses, drinks with lower alcohol content, drinking with food, or alternating soft and alcoholic drinks. If you really find it a struggle to cut down, talk to your GP about what support is available.
Keep mentally active – If you can keep your mind stimulated you are likely to reduce your risk of dementia. Regular mental activity throughout a person’s lifetime seems to increase the brain’s ability. This helps build up a ‘cognitive reserve’ and allows the brain to cope better with disease. (This link between brain activity and dementia is sometimes described as ‘Use it or lose it’.) Keeping mentally active could help to delay the symptoms of dementia by several years. It could even mean that you never get it. You could try learning a new language, doing puzzles (eg word searches, crosswords, Sudoku), playing cards, reading challenging books or writing letters. Find something enjoyable which stimulates your mind, do it regularly and keep doing it. There is not yet enough evidence to add computer ‘brain training’ games to this list, in spite of claims made by some manufacturers. Benefits from brain training are so far modest. They might make you better at a specific task, as practised within the game, but broader benefits for your mind or daily life are so far largely unproven. None has been shown to reduce the risk of developing dementia, although there is lots of research and new studies reporting all the time. Reducing your dementia risk means living a healthy lifestyle and keeping physically, mentally and socially active.
Be social – There is emerging evidence that keeping socially engaged and having a supportive social network may reduce your dementia risk. It will also make you less prone to depression and more resilient. Try to visit family and friends, look after grandchildren, travel or volunteer. You may like to try joining a social/activity club or a group at a place of worship.
Take control of your health – Managing your health can reduce your dementia risk. If you are invited for an NHS Health Check (in England), make sure you go. At this free mid-life ‘MOT’, a health professional will talk to you and measure your cardiovascular risk factors (eg blood pressure, weight, cholesterol). If necessary, you can then agree a plan to reduce your own risk of cardiovascular disease and dementia. In Wales, visit the Add to your life website for a self-assessment. In Northern Ireland, contact Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke (see ‘Other useful organisations’).You can keep track at of your weight or measure your blood pressure at home at any time with a simple monitor. If you feel that you might be getting depressed, seek treatment early. If you are already living with a long-term condition (eg diabetes, heart disease or high blood pressure) it’s important to keep this under control. Follow professional advice about taking medicines – even if you feel well – and on lifestyle, such as diet and exercise.