- The World Health Organization has released its first official guidelines to reduce the risk of developing dementia.
- The full report lays out the healthy habits that are critical for brain health, including diet and exercise recommendations.
- A neurologist explains why adopting these behaviors as soon as possible is critical for dementia prevention during aging.
Dementia is a terrifying disease that affects 50 million people worldwide. And unfortunately, there is no cure for it, which is why prevention is so crucial.
The World Health Organization (WHO) just released its first guidelines to reduce the risk of dementia globally. “In the next 30 years, the number of people with dementia is expected to triple,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement. “We need to do everything we can to reduce our risk of dementia. The scientific evidence gathered for these guidelines confirm what we have suspected for some time, that what is good for our heart, is also good for our brain.”
The guidelines, which come in the form of a 78-page report, spells out what the organization thinks will and won’t help reduce a person’s risk of developing dementia.
“It is exciting to see a major organization recognize that the collective scientific and clinical evidence is now strong enough to formally recommend adopting healthy lifestyle habits for brain health,” says David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, a neurologist and geriatric psychiatrist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. “We have observed this anecdotally for a number of years in a clinical setting.”
What are the signs of dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe the loss of cognitive functioning, like thinking, remembering, and reasoning, as well as behavioral abilities that interferes with a person’s daily life and activities, according to the National Institute on Aging. The signs of dementia may include trouble with memory, language skills, visual perception, problem solving, self-management, and the ability to focus and pay attention.
There are many types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal disorders, and vascular dementia. While dementia is more common as people get older, it’s not a normal part of aging and can even be fatal.
WHO dementia guidelines on how to lower your risk
Lifestyle factors are important, according to the WHO report, which recommends that people do the following to lower their risk of developing dementia:
1. Don’t drink too much
There tends to be a consistently lower risk of dementia when someone drinks moderately, but the risk goes up as you drink more. “It may be due to toxicity to brain cells,” says Jason Karlawish, MD, co-director of the Penn Memory Center. The WHO recommends drinking at a “non-harmful level,” which is having up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
2. Exercise regularly
Exercise is important for two reasons, says Dr. Karlawish. “Exercise has been shown to improve cardiovascular health, and there’s ample data that if you can improve cardiovascular health you can reduce risk of developing dementia,” he says. “There’s also evidence that exercise may have a direct effect of maintaining the health of brain cells.”
High levels of activity seem to be the most protective, the WHO says. Currently, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends getting 150 minutes or more of physical activity a week.
3. Don’t smoke
“Tobacco dependence is the leading cause of preventable death globally,” the WHO report states. Not only does tobacco use increase your risk of heart disease and cancer, but studies show that it can lead to cognitive decline, directly impacting your brain health.
4. Manage blood pressure
A high blood pressure (aka a reading that is 140 or higher over 90 or higher, per the American Heart Association) has been linked to a greater dementia risk.
5. Maintain a healthy weight
Having high blood pressure and being overweight have also been linked to heart disease, spiking your dementia risk, Dr. Karlawish says. The WHO specifically recommends maintaining a BMI under 25. (Check out these science-backed ways to lose weight.)
6. Eat a balanced diet
Also named the best diet of 2019, the WHO calls out the Mediterranean diet—which is rich in whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, healthy fats like olive oil, and fish—as a good eating plan to follow for brain health. “Higher adherence to a Mediterranean-style diet correlates with less build-up of the plaque and tangle brain pathology associated with Alzheimer’s disease,” explains Dr. Merrill. “This relationship holds true even for individuals with even the mildest subjective loss of memory function, before development of full blown Alzheimer’s disease.”
There are several supplements on the market that claim to help lower your risk of developing dementia, like B vitamins, antioxidants, omega-3, and ginkgo, but the WHO says they’re not worth your time. “Studies of supplements to date have been disappointing,” Dr. Merrill says. “This may be because single ‘silver bullet’ approaches are not sufficient to keep the brain healthy into older age.”
Bottom line: Following a healthy lifestyle now may help keep dementia out of your future
“It is never too early, and never too late, to start adopting healthy lifestyle habits,” Dr. Merrill says. “That said, midlife healthy behaviors have been shown to decrease the risk of developing late life dementia.”
So, start thinking about it now to prevent disease in the future. “Today’s the day to start a new habit, take that first step, to stave off dementia,” says Dr. Merrill. “Your brain will thank you for it.”
Follow CQ on Instagram.