“It’s like investing in your superannuation. You need to invest in your brain over the course of your life so you have a nice healthy brain when you’re old,” she says.
More than a third of Australians aged between 70 and 90 will develop mild brain decline – slightly impaired memory, decision making and problem solving. About 30 per cent of that group will go on to develop dementia within 10 years.
It often strikes at retirement age – when we are about to make some of the biggest financial decisions of our lives. Studies show people with cognitive impairments get those decisions wrong much more often.
Professor Anstey’s report, published by the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing – a collaboration between the nation’s top dementia scientists – highlights the top lifestyle risk factors for brain decline. Listed in the graphic below, together they make up about half your risk of getting dementia.
Here’s what you can do about them.
Find somebody to love
For women, living with someone, being married, and volunteering all make you more resilient to memory decline.
This result, from a single Canadian study done some time ago, might be down to differences in education between men and women, says Professor Anstey. Women with less education who were married to men with more education tended to get a protective effect.
“We’re finding those educational differences are diminishing now with a younger cohort,” she says.
For both sexes, having lots of friends and spending lots of time socialising is very important.
“When you’re interacting with another person, that’s an intellectually stimulating activity. You’re using a lot of your brain to do that,” says Dr Maree Farrow, a researcher at the Wicking Dementia Research Centre in Hobart.
Do something you’re bad at
Keeping your brain active is vital to keeping it fit and healthy. Unfortunately, that’s not as simple as it seems.
Even if something is mentally demanding, it won’t keep your brain fit. The brain needs new challenges, such as picking up a musical instrument for the first time or studying a new language, Professor Anstey says.
“People who can do a cryptic crossword in 10 minutes flat, it’s not challenging their brain any more.”
Studies also show people who read lots of books and regularly go to museums and the theatre have a lower risk of cognitive decline.
Healthy body, healthy mind. Exercise reduces depression, a major risk factor. It also pumps oxygen into the brain, keeping it healthy.
“In Australia, insufficient exercise is the No.1 modifiable risk factor,” Professor Anstey says. Aerobic exercise and weightlifting are both good but even regular walking helps.
Dementia is also strongly linked to poor heart health, particularly obesity, cholesterol and high-blood pressure. Exercise keeps your heart fighting fit.
People often ask Dr Farrow which aspect of their life they should change to give their brains the best chance.
“You need to think about what’s missing from your life at the moment,” she tells them.
“Is physical activity better than cognitive activity? No. But if you spend a lot of time at work being physically active, you might think about adding intellectual stimulation.”
Liam is Fairfax Media’s science reporter
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