Not everyone knows it, but a lot can be done to prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, for which at the moment there are no real definitive cures. I put it in black and white there Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, which identified 12 factors on which it is possible to act, and which together are responsible for approximately 40% of the various forms of dementia worldwide (of which Alzheimer’s is the most widespread). Here’s what they are.
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1- Low level of education
There are many studies to support the fact that higher levels of education reduce the risk of dementia: the level of education in fact influences the so-called cognitive reserve, defined as the brain’s ability to cope with changes linked to physiological aging or even specific brain damage . It is a resource that must be cultivated over time, starting from childhood. From the point of view of prevention, in fact, cognitive stimulation, which is obtained by reading, studying and therefore pursuing a good level of education, is important especially in the first years of life.
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2- Hearing problems
The results of one prospective study, based on a sample of over 3,700 individuals aged 65 and over, show an increase in the incidence of dementia in people who suffer from hearing loss, i.e. those who have hearing problems. This could be linked to the fact that hearing loss generates a certain social isolation (which among other things constitutes in itself a risk factor for the onset of dementia, as we will see below), and therefore reduces stimulation from the point of cognitive view. The good news is that the study results also show that the trend is not observed in people who use special devices to correct the problem. This thesis has also been confirmed by several other studies, demonstrating the fact that hearing loss is a factor that can be acted upon to prevent the risk of the onset of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
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3- Brain trauma
There are many studies that show an increase in the risk of onset of dementia in people who have suffered brain trauma. And the risk, as you might expect, increases with the number of traumas suffered. Furthermore, accidents of this type can in some cases favor the early onset of dementia. Severe brain injuries that can result from severe trauma, in fact, appear to be associated with modifications of a protein called tau (called tauopathies), which in turn constitute a hallmark of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
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Hypertension is also a risk factor for the onset of dementia, especially when it occurs around the age of 45-50 and is not treated promptly. The reasons behind these observations have not been completely clarified, but some studies show, for example, a correlation between so-called “middle-aged” hypertension and morphological changes at the central nervous system level, including a reduction of brain volume. Again, the good news is that the medicines available for the treatment of hypertension are an excellent option for reducing the impact of this risk factor on cognitive impairment.
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5- Poor physical activity
Several meta-analyses, i.e. studies that take into consideration the available literature on a certain topic, show that regular physical activity, and therefore a good level of training, is associated with a lower risk of the onset of some forms of dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s. The effect could also have to do with other risk factors, in particular those affecting the cardiovascular system such as hypertension: physical activity can in fact help keep hypertension under control, which, as we have just seen, constitutes in itself a risk factor for the onset of dementia. Furthermore, recent studies also seem to indicate a direct correlation between carrying out a certain type of physical activity and the production of factors that have a neuroprotective action.
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Type 2 diabetes has also long been considered a risk factor for the onset of any form of dementia. And the risk appears to increase with the severity of the disease. In this case, however, the results regarding the possible preventive effects of diabetes treatments are conflicting. That is, it is not clear whether treating the disease (which in any case is fundamental for other reasons) also has a preventive effect on the onset of dementia.
7- Excessive alcohol consumption
Many studies show that excessive alcohol consumption is associated, among other things, with a higher risk of developing dementia. Furthermore, some research shows that those suffering from alcohol addiction run a greater risk of developing this type of disease early, i.e. before reaching the age of 65.
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According to what was reported by Lancet, a total of 19 studies – through which over 500 thousand participants aged between 35 and 65 were observed for a maximum period of 42 years – show the existence of a correlation between the increase in the body mass (BMI, Body Mass Index) and the onset of dementia. In particular, obesity (BMI equal to or greater than 30) would constitute a risk factor in this sense. Among other things, obesity can in turn be associated with other potentially critical factors, such as low physical activity and social isolation.
9- Cigarette smoking
In addition to notoriously running a greater risk of the onset of various oncological (and other) diseases, smokers are also more at risk of developing some form of dementia. Data also shows that quitting smoking (even at an older age) significantly reduces this risk. Passive smoking also seems to be associated with an early deterioration of cognitive functions, although in this case the amount of scientific evidence available is not so high.
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As regards depression, things become more complex, given that dementia themselves can be the cause. At the same time, there are several studies that seem to indicate that the inverse relationship is also possible. That is, that depressive episodes, especially if they occur at an advanced age, can in some cases constitute a risk factor for the onset of dementia.
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11- Social isolation
Social contact, write the Lancet Commission experts, generally favors the development of the so-called cognitive reserves, and is for this reason considered as a preventive factor for the development of dementia. There are many studies in support of this thesis: one, conducted in Japan on almost 14 thousand adults over the age of 65, even shows a 46% reduction in the risk of developing some form of dementia in people who obtained the highest score on a scale that measures exposure to different types of social contacts.
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12- Air pollution
Several studies conducted on animal models show that air pollutants can accelerate specific processes related to neurodegeneration. And as far as humans are concerned, various research seems to show a correlation between the incidence of dementia and high exposure to a certain amount of particulate matter (the so-called PM2.5) or to substances such as nitrogen dioxide. Naturally, air pollution is not a factor on which it is possible to act at an individual level, and this evidence therefore once again shows the need and urgency to intervene at a political and legislative level on this front.