Managing diabetes, quitting smoking, controlling high blood pressure, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight can reduce the risk for dementia -- even late in life, according to new research.

The World Alzheimer Report 2014, commissioned by Alzheimer's Disease International, revealed that diabetes can increase the risk of dementia by 50 percent. The study noted that obesity and an inactive lifestyle are key risk factors for diabetes as well as high blood pressure.

The researchers suggested that dementia should be included in national public health prevention and detection programs along with other major non-communicable diseases, such as cancer and heart disease. They pointed out that it's never too late in life to make healthy lifestyle changes.

"While age and genetics are part of the disease's risk factors, not smoking, eating more healthily, getting some exercise, and having a good education, coupled with challenging your brain to ensure it is kept active, can all play a part in minimizing your chances of developing dementia," Graham Stokes, global director of dementia care at the international health care group Bupa, said in a news release from King's College London in England.

"People who already have dementia, or signs of it, can also do these things, which may help to slow the progression of the disease," Stokes added.

A team of researchers, led by Martin Prince, a professor at King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, found that quitting smoking had a strong link with a reduced risk for developing dementia.

The report, published on the Alzheimer's Disease International website in advance of World Alzheimer's Day on Sept. 21, found that among people aged 65 and older, former smokers have a dementia risk that is similar to never-smokers. In contrast, current smokers are at much higher risk for this mental decline.

People with more education are also at lower risk for dementia. Although education doesn't affect the brain changes that lead to dementia, it can reduce their impact on brain function, the researchers explained.

Costs for care may go up as much as fivefold...

Costs for care may go up as much as fivefold if disease isn't delayed, prevented Credit: HealthDay

Changes in the brain can begin long before symptoms develop. The investigators concluded that growing older with a stimulated and healthy brain can help people live longer, more independent lives.

Although survey data from Bupa has shown that many people are worried about developing dementia, few know about some specific steps that can help reduce their risk, including being socially active with friends and family, losing weight and exercising.

"There is already evidence from several studies that the incidence of dementia may be falling in high-income countries, linked to improvements in education and cardiovascular health," Prince said in the news release. "We need to do all we can to accentuate these trends. With a global cost of over $600 billion, the stakes could hardly be higher."

And, added Marc Wortmann, executive director of Alzheimer's Disease International, "From a public health perspective, it is important to note that most of the risk factors for dementia overlap with those for the other major non-communicable diseases."

Wortmann explained in the news release that "in high-income countries, there is an increased focus on healthier lifestyles, but this is not always the case with lower- and middle-income countries. By 2050, we estimate that 71 percent of people living with dementia will live in these regions, so implementing effective public health campaigns may help to reduce the global risk."

More information

The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about dementia.

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