July 2017 Vox

Dementia has long been thought of as an inevitable part of aging, but researchers are increasingly learning that’s not quite true. About a third of dementia cases might actually be avoided by living a lifestyle that better protects your brain. Dementia is how we describe symptoms that impact memory and lead to a decline in cognitive performance, often in ways that disrupt daily living. There are different brain disorders that cause dementia, but Alzheimer's is the most common, followed by cerebrovascular disease and Lewy bodies disease. Around the world, some 47 million people are currently living with dementia. The burden of Alzheimer’s alone on families and the health system is difficult to overstate: It’s the most expensive disease in America, costing up to $215 billion per year (more than double that of cancer or heart disease), and it can take a terrible toll on patient’s loved ones. The number of people with dementia is also expected to triple worldwide by 2050 as populations age.

But there’s some good news: You might be able to modify some of your risk of developing dementia. A recent Lancet report, by 24 leading dementia researchers from around the world, zeroed in on nine of the best-known lifestyle factors that contribute to the illness and account for more than a third of dementia cases. The takeaway: Addressing these factors might be able to cut our dementia risk by up to 35 percent.

brain scan

9 behavioursThis list of nine contributors is only the beginning. The scientific community is already learning about other potential contributors to dementia, such as exposure to pollution and lack of sleep.

“So we don’t think this [list of nine things] is everything but this is what we have evidence on now,” said Livingston. There are other caveats to note about this research. Some of the factors — such as hearing loss, or social isolation — are again associated with dementia, but whether they cause dementia isn’t yet clear, and researchers are working to better understand dementia’s causes.

What’s more, not all cases of dementia are preventable; about 7 percent are linked with genetics and can’t be modified with lifestyle changes. And, the researchers wrote, “age, the greatest risk factor for dementia overall, is unmodifiable.”

Even so, Livingston added, people should think about finding ways to cut their dementia risk, and policymakers should think about creating environments that promote health. For example, some communities aren’t walkable, or lack strong tobacco control policies. Making exercise more accessible, and helping people quit their smoking habit, could reduce the dementia burden. Considering what a costly and devastating problem dementia is, we can’t wait for better evidence. And, it seems, even small steps toward living a healthier and more active lifestyle not only boost your overall health, but the health of your brain, too.

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