Higher air pollution ‘increases dementia risk’ – 8 evidence-based ways to keep your brain healthy

·5 min read
Evidence based ways to prevent dementia (Alamy/PA)
Evidence based ways to prevent dementia (Alamy/PA)

There’s been growing concern over the health impact of air pollution – and a new study suggests poor air can raise our risk of dementia.

The research, led by University of Washington looked at data relating to exposure over a 40-year period, comparing people living in specific different areas. They found that just a one microgram per cubic metre difference in pollution levels between residences was associated with 16% higher incidence of dementia.

“In other words, individuals exposed to elevated long-term PM2.5 had a higher risk of developing dementia,” said lead author Dr Rachel Shaffer.

(Alamy/PA)
(Alamy/PA)

Tackling air pollution is key, but what can we do to protect ourselves in the meantime? The masks we’ve all become used to during the pandemic might help – researchers suggest keeping them on might not be a bad idea for city-dwellers.

But, short of escaping to the wilderness, thankfully there’s strong evidence that lifestyle measures play a big part in preventing or delaying dementia. Here’s eight things worth keeping in mind…

1. Exercise and keeping active

Vital for all aspects of health, exercise is also associated with reduced dementia risk. Dr Emer MacSweeney, consultant neuroradiologist at Re:Cognition Health (recognitionhealth.com) says there’s loads of research in this area. When it comes to getting the blood pumping and promoting brain health, among other things, MacSweeney says exercise has been found to “increase brain volume in cognitively normal older adults, decrease oxidative stress and improve respiration and glucose metabolism”.

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Remember, a daily brisk walk and getting out to do the gardening all counts towards this goal, and there are tons of chair-based workouts on YouTube if getting outside is a struggle.

2. Try something like dancingAnd when it comes to getting that regular exercise in, if you’re able, how about making it something that involves learning new skills and routines, like a dance class? Not only will you be getting all the benefits of moving your body, MacSweeney points out you’ll be getting additional cognitive benefits too. “Learning and remembering new steps activates many neural pathways in the brain,” MacSweeney says, “helping keep it strong, active and healthy.”

3. Give your brain a workout

Salsa or tango not your thing? There are plenty of ways to give your brain a workout – learning a language or musical instrument (you don’t have to be any good!), doing arts and crafts, getting stuck into a good book or puzzle session or games night.

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Research from Chicago published earlier this summer in the Neurology journal, found people who did more brain-engaging activities on a regular basis had lower rates of dementia – and those who did go on to develop the disease, got it at a later age.

Dr Katy Stubbs, from Alzheimer’s Research UK, says: “Evidence suggests keeping the brain active throughout life may help boost cognitive reserve, a kind of resilience that allows our brains to resist damage for longer as we age.”

4. Stay connectedSocial isolation is associated with poorer health in a number of ways. Those who are lonely and isolated may have poorer sleep, higher rates of depression and less opportunity to engage their minds and brains – all things which may contribute to higher dementia risk. Research published last year in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry reported “meta-analyses have found that social isolation or loneliness in older adults is associated with a 50% increased risk of developing dementia”.

GP Dr Jeff Foster, author of new book Man Alive, agrees this is a biggie: “Make sure you have love – we know that people who spend time with loved ones and are in regular contact with family and friends have a reduced risk of dementia, and if they are diagnosed, have a better outcome.”

5. Eat a Mediterranean inspired dietThere’s tons of research on how eating a healthy diet helps protect our hearts, blood vessels and brains. Based on this evidence, researchers at Rush University in Chicago devised the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet – a combination of the Mediterranean diet, often dubbed the healthiest in the world, and the DASH diet, designed to help combat high blood pressure.

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Think lots of fruit and veg, wholegrains, beans, pulses, oily fish and cooking from scratch as much as possible. Ditching added salt and keeping animal fats, red meat, processed and ‘fast food’ and sweet treats to a minimal and sensible level.

6. Get good sleepPoor sleep has been linked with a wide range of detrimental effects on health, and research published earlier this year found lack of sleep in middle-age was associated with higher dementia rates in later life. Using data from almost 8000 British adults, the study led by University College London found people who sleep six hours or less each night in their 50s and 60s had a higher chance of developing dementia further down the line.

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Lead author Dr Séverine Sabia said: “While we cannot confirm that not sleeping enough actually increases the risk of dementia, there are plenty of reasons why a good night’s sleep might be good for brain health. These findings confirm the importance of sleep hygiene for health.”

7. Don’t smoke

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Smoking is a major risk factor in dementia. In 2014, the World Health Organisation estimated 14% of global dementia cases may be caused by smoking. The good news? It’s never too late to quit. Contact your GP for info about free quit-smoking services in your area or visit smokefree.gov.

8. Keep an eye on alcohol intakeAs Alzheimer’s Society points out, drinking too much alcohol increases dementia risk. Research is mixed as to how exactly risk levels vary amongst those who drink zero alcohol, and those who enjoy the odd tipple at a sensible, moderate level – but experts generally agree it’s a good idea to watch your intake. NHS guidelines suggest drinking no more than 14 units each week, spread over at least three days.

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