Alzheimer’s is a progressive neurological disorder that causes the brain to shrink and the brain cells to die. Broadly, it is a type of dementia, which is a mental degradation severe enough to interfere with daily life. As the human body ages, the chances of developing such degenerative disorders also rise. According to the Dementia India Report 2020, 7.6 million Indians are expected to have dementia by the year 2030, an estimated rise from 3.7 million in 2010.
As per a study by the Lancet Commission, although 10-15% of patients may first show symptoms as early as 30 years of age, the disease becomes more prevalent in the fifth and sixth decades of a person’s life cycle. However, the age-specific incidence of dementia has fallen in many countries, most likely due to advancements in health care, nutrition, education, and lifestyle choices.
The development of a treatment or cure for Alzheimer’s has been delayed by the challenge of determining the exact cause of the disease, despite decades of research. However, scientific studies on modifiable risk factors for dementia were conducted by the Lancet Commission in 2020, comprising doctors from various specialties such as public health experts and epidemiologists. They have identified 12 risk factors for Alzheimer’s, which, if managed timely, may prevent or delay dementia.
The modifiable risk factors include high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, obesity, depression, physical inactivity, impaired hearing, impaired vision, lower education levels, low levels of social contact, and air pollution. Conscious efforts and lifestyle changes will help manage these risk factors and reduce the risk of dementia.
Our five senses—sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, inform us about ourselves and help us interact with the outside world. Sensory inputs help protect us and modulate our likes, dislikes, interactions, and experiences. For our brain or neural network to function normally and stay healthy, they require regular stimulation from these sensory systems.
Regular health check-ups and early diagnosis of these risk factors including hearing loss and vision impairment can be helpful in Alzheimer’s prevention. A comprehensive eye exam, refractory error correction, and cataract surgery, among other techniques, can help with more than 80% of vision impairment. Similarly, numerous hearing issues can be resolved by wax removal, treating infections, or using hearing aids.
Social isolation, one of the identified modifiable risk factors, has increased as a result of urban living and nuclear families. Additionally, the pandemic has also contributed to the risk of dementia and increased the incidence of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Planning one’s weekly and weekend activities and engaging oneself, especially the elderly, can be advantageous in managing this risk factor.
Regular exercise lowers the risk of dementia, according to a study conducted at the Washington VA Medical Centre and George Washington University. As per this study, more than 600,000 patients over 60 showed that those who exercised regularly had a lower risk of developing dementia by 33%. Any form of exercise, including aerobic exercises like cycling, swimming, and running, physical activities like sports, dancing, and also household chores where 3 hours of housework might be equivalent to 30 minutes of aerobic activity, prove beneficial in managing physical inactivity as a risk factor.
With the increasing number of Alzheimer’s patients, it is important to create awareness of such findings to help people reduce the risk of developing dementia. Taking care of aspects in our control is a significant step toward reducing the risk of dementia and a healthier future.
The author is a Consultant, Neurology, Specialist Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology