From eating a few squares of dark chocolate every day to stroking a neighbour’s dog if you don’t have one of your own, there are plenty of surprisingly simple things you can do to keep your brain firing on all cylinders well into your later years.
Although exciting trials are under way, investigating a new generation of drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease – the most common cause of dementia – these are not yet approved to be used and may have serious side effects.
So research is increasingly focused on ways to help prevent the brain deteriorating in the first place.
According to the charity Alzheimer’s Society, about 40 per cent of dementia cases may be preventable.
So here – in the second part of our exclusive series that you will want to cut out and keep – are 20 more lifestyle tweaks which will reduce your risk, as recommended by leading experts in the field.
Pets have been shown to reduce feelings of loneliness and depression, which are both risk factors for dementia, says Dr MacLaren
Those who are obese in middle age were 64 per cent more likely to develop dementia later in life, a 2017 study found after analysing the medical records of more than 500,000 adults
1. The power of language
Numerous studies show people who learn a second language get a significant brain boost that lasts a lifetime.
‘A remarkable 2007 study in Toronto showed that people who speak more than one language developed symptoms of dementia about four years later than those who only spoke one,’ says brain surgeon and neuroscientist Dr Rahul Jandial, author of Life Lessons From A Brain Surgeon.
There are free apps such as Duolingo, which offers courses in more than 40 languages, if you want to learn at home.
2. A good night’s sleep is vital
Chronic insomnia, defined as having difficulties for more than three months with either falling or staying asleep, has severe potential long-term implications – including raised blood pressure, heart problems, obesity, lowered immunity and depression.
‘These are risk factors for developing dementia and there is also research to show consistent lack of sleep can lead to a build-up of beta-amyloid proteins, which have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease,’ says Professor Guy Leschziner, professor of neurology and sleep medicine at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals in London.
He recommends asking your GP for a referral for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – a type of talking therapy that teaches a range of coping skills. There are also CBT courses available online.
3. Get checked for a hearing aid
‘People often don’t notice they’re losing their hearing – but ask your GP to refer you for an audiology test if you’re having problems or someone comments on your hearing,’ advises Gill Livingston, professor of psychiatry for older people at University College London. ‘Loss of hearing brings a massive loss of stimulation and particularly damages parts of the brain concerned with memory.’
Difficulty hearing is associated with up to a 91 per cent increased risk of developing dementia, according to Oxford University research in 2021– but research published last month in The Lancet found wearing a hearing aid wipes out this risk.
4. Embrace the Great Outdoors
Neuroscientist Dr Jandial recommends regular hourly walks in your local park to relieve stress, stimulate your mind and lower blood pressure, which all help to reduce your risk of developing dementia.
5. Build up your muscles
Strength training two or three times a week builds muscle mass while also having an effect on potential causes of dementia.
Dr Ashley Gluchowski said: ‘A higher muscle mass acts as a deposit for glucose, mopping up the sugar from the blood stream, which could otherwise eventually go on to damage blood vessels leading to conditions such as type 2 diabetes and potentially contributing to dementia.’
‘A higher muscle mass acts as a deposit for glucose, mopping up the sugar from the blood stream, which could otherwise eventually go on to damage blood vessels leading to conditions such as type 2 diabetes and potentially contributing to dementia,’ explains Dr Ashley Gluchowski, a clinical exercise physiologist at the University of Manchester.
Keep increasing the intensity of your workout week after week by using heavier weights.
Dr Gluchowski adds: ‘Challenging your muscles with heavier weights causes temporary damage to them, but the muscles build back stronger and denser.’
6. Eat more greens and grains
Serve up more folate-rich foods such as broccoli, asparagus, peas, lettuce, beans and whole grains.
There’s growing evidence that folate – a B vitamin crucial for brain and nerve health, also known as folic acid – could help to ward off Alzheimer’s in old age.
A 2005 study from the University of California found that men and women who regularly consumed 400micrograms of folate a day, through diet and supplements, cut their risk of developing Alzheimer’s by more than 50 per cent.
It’s thought folate curbs the activity of the amino acid homocysteine – high levels of which increase your risk of heart disease, stroke and dementia.
7. Get help if you’re feeling lonely
Loneliness is a major risk factor for developing dementia, and for those who are already suffering dementia symptoms it can result in a significant deterioration in concentration, memory loss, understanding speech and performing simple everyday tasks.
Dr Tom MacLaren, a consultant psychiatrist at specialist brain clinic Re:Cognition Health, suggests consulting your GP about talking therapies and possibly antidepressants, as loneliness is also linked to depression. ‘This might help stop cognitive damage before it becomes too severe,’ he says.
8. Listen to your favourite tunes
According to research, music causes the brain’s ‘reward centres’ to release feel-good chemicals.
These include dopamine, which is known to counter stress, anxiety and low mood, which can all contribute to increasing your risk of developing dementia.
9. Thyroid hormone check for women
Scientists at Harvard and Boston Medical Schools found that women who had either the lowest or the highest levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as women with normal levels. This did not apply to men.
The exact mechanism is not known, but it’s thought excessive levels of TSH may kill off neurons or damage cerebral blood vessels, while low levels may increase the protein beta-amyloid in brain cells, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s.
‘As well as being a potential risk factor, cognitive decline may also be a symptom of both underactive and overactive thyroids, so it’s important to establish the root cause of symptoms by requesting tests through your GP,’ says Dr Zaki Hassan-Smith, honorary consultant endocrinologist at Birmingham University Hospitals.
10. Spend time with a pet
Pets have been shown to reduce feelings of loneliness and depression, which are both risk factors for dementia, says Dr MacLaren.
Owning a pet is not for everyone but you might be able to borrow a neighbour’s pets
Owning a pet is not for everyone, but you might be able to borrow a neighbour’s – or try Borrow My Doggy, a company connecting dog owners with dog ‘borrowers’ for a walk, an afternoon or a weekend (borrowmydoggy.com).
11. Use your non-dominant hand
Challenge yourself to write with your non-dominant hand, says Dr Jandial. ‘The part of your brain that controls that hand simply hasn’t been challenged. Try using it and you will literally be building brain connections.’
12. Prevent or control your diabetes symptoms
Diabetes can increase your risk of developing both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia – dementia caused by reduced blood flow to the brain.
Studies show type 2 diabetes may double or triple your risk for Alzheimer’s, and the earlier diabetes takes hold the higher the odds.
‘In addition, high blood sugar and insulin can damage the brain’s blood vessels and disturb control of its chemicals,’ says Dr Emer MacSweeney, consultant neuroradiologist at Re:Cognition Health.
The NHS Health Check, available to anyone aged 40 to 74 through their GP, should spot the early signs of conditions including diabetes.
13. Treat Yourself to Chocolate
Eating dark chocolate or drinking cocoa may help save your ageing brain.
A 2015 study found that cognitive ability improved in volunteers who drank flavonol-rich cocoa over an eight-week period
Cocoa contains high concentrations of flavonols – a type of flavonoid – natural substances which increase blood flow to the brain, stimulating the creation of new brain cells and slowing cognitive decline. A 2015 study found that cognitive ability improved in volunteers who drank flavonol-rich cocoa over an eight-week period.
‘Eat a few squares of dark chocolate every day – but choose at least 70 per cent cocoa solids,’ advises Dr Duane Mellor, a senior nutrition lecturer at the Aston Medical School in Birmingham.
14. Tackle that spare tyre
Those who are obese in middle age were 64 per cent more likely to develop dementia later in life, a 2017 study found after analysing the medical records of more than 500,000 adults.
Talk to your GP about NHS weight-loss programmes. You may also qualify for new weightloss treatment semaglutide (brand name Wegovy), which works by suppressing appetite and has been approved for some adults by the NHS watchdog the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.
To qualify for the treatment you must have at least one weight-related condition, such as sleep apnoea or heart disease, and a body mass index (BMI) of 35 or above.
15. Do sums in your head
Exercises that boost your ‘working memory’ are a valuable way to keep your brain fitter for longer, says Dr Jandial.
He explains that the working memory is ‘like a mental note pad that keeps track of a conversation, remembers why you walked upstairs and helps you think through a problem’.
A very effective way to strengthen your working memory is mental arithmetic. Here are ten sums, multiplying two-digit numbers, to get you started: 18×21, 96×58, 17×71, 35×19, 24×45, 43×82, 29×72, 84×33, 97×63 and 12×81.
16. Take part in a clinical trial
There has been a massive surge in investment in new medications to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Specialist brain clinic Re:Cognition Health organises trials of new dementia drugs involving patients from around the world – including thousands from the NHS.
Contact Re:Cognition Health (recognitionhealth.com) to find out more and discuss joining any prospective trial with your GP.
17. Get treatment for Depression
Don’t let depression go untreated as research suggests it can raise the risk of dementia.
With both depression and Alzheimer’s disease, the same areas of the brain are affected – showing reductions in certain brain chemicals that send messages between nerve cells.
Don’t let depression go untreated as research suggests it can raise the risk of dementia
Some antidepressant drugs restore the levels of these brain chemicals, but studies have shown mindfulness, or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, can be as successful as drugs in preventing new episodes of depression, anxiety and stress – all of which increase dementia risk.
This calms the body and mind by focusing on breath and is an approved NHS treatment.
18. Cut back on sleeping pills
Although sleeping pills – including benzodiazepines and ‘Z’ drugs such as zolpidem – are often prescribed for treating insomnia, there’s some evidence linking them to cognitive decline, says Prof Leschziner, author of The Secret World Of Sleep. ‘Not only can they cause morning drowsiness but can lead to dependency and withdrawal effects, such as a return of sleep problems and feelings of anxiety.’
In 2018, Korean research provided growing evidence that these drugs are linked to cognitive decline or the risk of dementia. Ask your sleep specialist or GP to review your prescription and get advice on other options.
19. Genes may not be the cause
Your vulnerability to dementia is influenced by your genes, but that’s not the only factor as others – including lifestyle – are also key.
In fact, around 40 per cent of dementia cases may be preventable by targeting risks that occur throughout your life, according to the charity Alzheimer’s Society – which does not recommend home-testing genetic kits.
Your vulnerability to dementia is influenced by your genes, but that’s not the only factor as others – including lifestyle – are also key
If you are concerned about family links to dementia or memory loss, talk to your GP. A muddled memory, confusion, loss of balance and mood changes can be symptoms of many conditions, including a Vitamin B12 deficiency, a brain infection such as meningitis, a head injury or the side effect of medications. These can often be easily treated.
If the symptoms are due to the onset of Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia, a prompt diagnosis can help you make important decisions about treatment and care, as well as giving you access to support therapies and groups.
Being diagnosed also means you are protected by law from discrimination at work and it can give you access to financial benefits.
20. Notice when things change
If A loved one is struggling to recall recent events, has difficulty concentrating or has become unusually anxious, irritable, sad or frightened, encourage them to have a chat with a GP.
Early behavioural changes that indicate dementia can be subtle, so the observations of others are key. The Alzheimer’s Society provides a helpful checklist which can help identify potential indicators (alzheimers.org.uk/memoryloss).