Dr. Amanda Wiggins
Xtend-Life Research Scientist
Dr. Amanda Wiggins works with Xtend-Life as the Chief Research Scientist, where she shares her knowledge of research, science and wellness.
The French philosopher Descartes summed things up nicely when he said, "I think, therefore I am". Remembering the past, being cognitively present and being able to interpret the world around us, is in many ways, what makes us human.
Unfortunately, aging is also a normal part of being human, and our memory and cognitive abilities decline as we age.
There is a big difference between normal cognitive aging and dementia. The latter is a distinct condition that affects a person's ability to perform everyday tasks. Xtend-Life's blog The Difference Between Normal Cognitive Aging and Dementia outlines the features of normal cognitive aging versus signs and symptoms of dementia.
The relatively recent discovery that Alzheimer's begins 20 years or more before the onset of symptoms helps explain why it has been difficult to prevent and treat Alzheimer's disease effectively. However, it also implies that there is a substantial window of time in which we can intervene in the progression of the disease, through lifestyle changes.
Researchers have identified two types of risk factors for Alzheimer's; fixed risks, and those you can potentially change.
Fixed risks: age, genetics, family history & gender
Age is by far the biggest risk factor for dementia with the risk of developing dementia increases significantly with age. On average, about 3% of adults aged 70 to 74 will develop dementia. That's about 1 in every 33 people in that age bracket. The prevalence of dementia rises to 22% in adults aged 85 to 89 (about 1 in every 5 people) and about 1 in every 3 people (33%) over the age of 90 will suffer from dementia.
Genetics and family history has a role in the risk of developing dementia. There is a particular gene family that has a strong impact on the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. The gene called APOE provides a blueprint for a protein that transports cholesterol in the bloodstream. Having a particular form of the gene (APOE-e4) significantly increases the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
Aside from the APOE gene, those who have or had a first degree relative such as a parent or sibling with dementia are more likely to develop dementia than those who do not have a first degree relative with it. This family linkage may be due to multiple genetic factors or lifestyle factors or both.
Gender is another risk factor for developing dementia. Women are more likely to have dementia than men and no one really knows why this is the case. About two-thirds of those diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease are women. This may be because women tend to live longer than men, but some researchers believe it may be related to changes in the brain that occur after menopause.
While age, genetics and gender are not things that can be modified, there are still plenty of changes you can make to help look after your brain and to reduce the risk of developing dementia.
Lifestyle factors as modifiable risk factors
Risk factors that can be modified or changed, such as changes to lifestyle, are known as modifiable risk factors. In 2020, a group of doctors and researchers published the most comprehensive and up to date review of all the modifiable risk factors that are linked to dementia.
They deduced that there are specific things you can do to address modifiable risk factors that might prevent or delay up to 40% of dementia cases. That’s good news!
The image below shows the percentage reduction in dementia rates if each modifiable risk factor is addressed.
There is a very hopeful message in this diagram: no matter what stage of life you are at, there are things you can do to reduce your risk of developing dementia later in life.
Help reduce your risk of developing dementia
Hearing loss, especially in the middle of life is the strongest modifiable risk factor for dementia. Some quite stark study results have found a decrease in cognition with every 10 dB reduction in hearing. At the clinical threshold for hearing loss (25 dB), there is a very significant level of lower cognition, compared to those who do not have hearing loss - or who wear a hearing aid to correct their hearing loss.
Loss of hearing in midlife results in faster shrinking of the brain - specifically in areas involved in memory, cognition and language. The trick here is to get your hearing tested ASAP! Find out where your hearing is at, so you can take action if needed, to reduce this dementia risk factor.
Heart health is intricately linked to brain health. Having a healthy heart and circulatory system means that enough blood, oxygen and nutrients are pumped to the brain so that it can function normally.
Many factors that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease are also linked with a higher risk of dementia. Midlife obesity, having high blood pressure (hypertension) or even prehypertension (systolic blood pressure from 120 to 139 mm Hg or diastolic pressure from 80 to 89 mm Hg), smoking and diabetes are all associated with an increased risk of dementia.;
Taking the connection between heart health and brain health one step further, researchers have found that factors that protect the heart also protect the brain against the risk of dementia.
Exercise and diet
Physical activity is one of these factors and consuming a heart-healthy diet that emphasises whole foods is another factor. To learn more about nutrition for brain health, head to Xtend-Life's blog A Neuroscientist's Guide to Nutrition for Brain Health.
Mental and social activities
Studies suggest that remaining socially and mentally active throughout life helps support brain health and may reduce the risk of developing dementia. Having a mentally stimulating job and engaging in other mentally stimulating activities is a great way to keep your brain active. Ideally, engaging in mentally stimulating activities with a buddy, club or social group is ideal because it ticks the boxes of being both mentally and socially stimulating.
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It is easy to feel gloomy about dementia, after all, we probably all know someone who is affected by this devastating condition. It is heart-wrenching to watch a loved one go through dementia and most of us would do anything to avoid getting dementia ourselves.
The good news is, that it is never too early and never too late in the life course for dementia prevention. There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing dementia for a bright, happy, healthy journey through older age.
Xtend-Life's newest supplement Think Sharp is designed to support a healthy brain, memory and cognition for those over 60. Packed with research-backed natural ingredients, it provides support alongside a healthy lifestyle to help your brain stay in great shape as you age.
Fact Sheet: U.S. Dementia Trends
More Than Normal Aging: Understanding Mild Cognitive Impairment
Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures
Dementia prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commission