Can you prevent dementia? New guidelines offer these suggestions

An estimated 50 million people worldwide have dementia.

In 30 years, according to the World Health Organization, that number is expected to triple.

WHO issued new guidelines Tuesday aimed at addressing that growing number and curbing the risk of cognitive decline in people who may be at risk because of their lifestyles.

"In the next 30 years, the number of people with dementia is expected to triple," WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement. "We need to do everything we can to reduce our risk of dementia. The scientific evidence gathered for these guidelines confirms what we have suspected for some time, that what is good for our heart, is also good for our brain."

While many people associate old age with decreased cognitive function, the WHO study pointed out that dementia is not a natural outcome of aging.

"While age is the strongest known risk factor for cognitive decline, dementia is not a natural or inevitable consequence of aging," the report states. "Prevention of dementia is possible through a public health approach."

What is dementia, what causes it and what does the WHO recommend you do to decrease your chances of suffering from it? Here is a look at dementia and the WHO’s new guidelines.

What is it?

Dementia is not a specific disease, but a group of disorders associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills.

The decline is so severe it reduces a person’s ability to perform simple daily activities and affects memory, comprehension, orientation and judgment among other cognitive functions. The level that a person is impaired is beyond what is considered normal for aging.

Dementia affects people's memory, comprehension, orientation, judgment and other cognitive functions, but is not a natural or inevitable consequence of aging.

What causes it?

A variety of diseases or conditions, like Alzheimer's disease or stroke, can cause dementia, the WHO says. Alzheimer's disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Vascular dementia, damage to the brain following a stroke, is the second most common type of dementia.

Is dementia reversible?

If dementia is caused by Alzheimer’s disease or other conditions that cause progressive dementia, the symptoms are not reversible at the present time. However, there are drugs that can help ease some of the symptoms for a period of time.

If dementia is caused by conditions such as thyroid problems, vitamin deficiencies, excessive alcohol use, side effects of medication or depression, then it can be reversed or improved.

Here’s what the WHO study says about factors that contribute to the odds of developing dementia:

While age is the strongest risk factor, dementia is not an inevitable (or natural) consequence of aging.

Lifestyle risk factors, such as physical inactivity, excessive alcohol use and smoking have been linked to the increase in cases of dementia.

Certain medical conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and depression are associated with a high risk of developing dementia.
Social isolation and cognitive inactivity are thought to be factors in developing dementia.

Addressing the risk factors above can lead to the prevention or delay of cognitive decline or dementia.

What can you do about it? 

The WHO offers these suggestions:

  • Exercise.
  • Do not smoke.
  • Do not drink too much.
  • Eat a balanced diet – the report recommends a Mediterranean diet that is mostly plant-based and includes fish, nuts and whole grains.
  • Manage your blood pressure.
  • Manage your weight.

What doesn’t work?

The WHO study says vitamins and other supplements have not been shown to reduce the risk of developing dementia.

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