Healthy Lifestyle Choices Bring Decline in Dementia

senior woman with dementia with her daughter walking embraced in a beautiful park

There is very good news coming out of a major study of over 60,000 people by the Harvard School of Public Health. Dementia has been declining by a rate of 15% per decade for the past 30 years in both Europe and the U.S. But before we break out the champagne, it must be said that the overall number of people with dementia is expected to triple by 2050.

The Difference Between Incidence Rates and Overall Numbers

Dementia is declining and rising? The seemingly paradoxical data is due to continuous growth in population, particularly among the elderly, but here’s a little example to clear it up:

Let’s say that in 1990, 500 people lived in Anytown, USA, and 50 (10%) of those people had dementia. Over 30 years, from 1990 to 2020, the incidence rate of dementia decreased by 15% every decade. Assuming zero growth in the population of Anytown over those three decades, there were only 31 citizens with dementia in the year 2020.

Now let’s assume that the population of Anytown increased to 1,500 by 2020, and (keeping the same rate of 10%) 150 of its citizens had dementia. Even with the 15% decline per decade, the overall number of Anytown residents with dementia in 2020 is far more than 31; it is 92.

What’s Causing the Decline?

But let’s back to the good news of a decline in dementia incidence.

Why is this happening?

In broad terms, it’s because of lifestyle changes mitigating certain dementia risk factors. Identified by the Lancet Commission, these risk factors include, among others, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, depression, physical inactivity, social isolation, excessive alcohol consumption, and smoking.

Where There’s Smoke

Among the above risk factors, one of the biggies (as discovered by the Harvard study) is that last one: smoking. There has been a radical decline in smoking in recent decades, especially among men, and while smoking is generally associated with an increased threat of heart disease and cancer, it is also a risk factor for dementia. The significant decrease in smoking has been strongly linked to a decline in dementia incidence over the years.

Step It Up

A new study is hailing the benefits of walking in the prevention of dementia. In addition to reducing the risk for cancer, heart disease and early death, walking is also good for the mind. For those who walk 10,000 steps per day at a brisk pace, the risk is reduced by a whopping 50%. While walking that much is not realistic for many of us – seniors especially – the risk of dementia has been found to be diminished by any amount of regular walking.  

Heart and Brain Health Go Together

“What’s good for the heart is also good for the brain,” according to Dr. Carol Routledge, director of Alzheimer’s Research UK. “As well as maintaining a healthy blood pressure, the best current evidence suggests that not smoking, only drinking within recommended limits, staying mentally and physically active, eating a balanced diet, and keeping cholesterol levels in check can all help to keep our brains healthy as we age,” she added. Moreover, as explored here in this blog, vascular dementia results from impaired blood flow to the brain and stroke occurs when a clot or plaque blocks or bursts a blood vessel in the brain, further strengthening the link between heart and brain health.

Dementia Around the World

Research has delved into which parts of the world are most likely to see increases in dementia. High-income Asia Pacific and western Europe are least likely, while north Africa, the Middle East and eastern sub-Saharan Africa are most likely. The United States falls somewhere in the middle with, as noted above, a projected tripling of absolute numbers over the next 28 years.

So, What Does All This Mean?

While the decline in dementia incidence is hopeful and heartening indeed, particularly as people have control over lifestyle choices that can reduce risk, the rise in total numbers in the U.S. and across the globe is of grave consequence. What’s more, according to the study out of Harvard, “With other dementia risk factors such as obesity and diabetes on the rise, the decline in dementia rates may not continue for long.” Experts identify some principal implications, based on what is known about dementia expectancy:

  • Efforts to address known modifiable risk factors for dementia and Alzheimer’s will ramp up and remain in the international spotlight.
  • The need for health and social care services will increase, including support for caregivers.
  • Increased resources must be allocated for better understanding and characterization of disease mechanisms, and effective therapeutic agents must be developed.
  • Perhaps most importantly, the effect of lifestyle changes on the development of dementia must be at the forefront of the collective consciousness of all people, regardless of age.  

How Does Senior Living Factor In?

Given what we’re learning about modifiable risk factors for dementia, it is important to note that quality senior living communities like Barclay Friends offer residents a gamut of activities and services that promote an overall healthy lifestyle. Nutritious, delicious food choices, ample opportunities for physical activity, vital social interactions, and a continuum of care is a way of life at Barclay Friends. And for those who develop dementia or Alzheimer’s, our tailored, person-centered memory care is here to help your loved one embrace all the many joys that are still possible.

Lifestyle is a choice. Start living your best today.

Schedule a tour and learn more about continuing care at Barclay Friends.