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Making good lifestyle choices can help cut Alzheimer's risks

As the planet's population ages, the number of people afflicted with dementia has risen to staggering levels. About 55 million people are living with dementia, with 10 million new cases annually. The most common form is Alzheimer's disease, which may contribute to 60% to 70% of cases, World Health Organization figures show.

As we mark the somber occasion of World Alzheimer's Day on 21 September 2021, let us reflect on what these numbers mean for society. A diagnosis of Alzheimer's packs a one-two punch: It is devastating for individuals and families, while posing enormous challenges for healthcare systems.

Swiss Re has been spreading awareness about healthy living habits that have the potential to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's while also supporting those living with it.

Much like modifying our lifestyles can reduce cancer risks, people can take small steps - and a few big ones - to help keep dementia at bay or slow its progression. At Swiss Re, we refer to these modifiable health behaviors as "The Big Six" Lifestyle Risk Factors. They are sleep, physical activity, nutrition, substance use, mental wellbeing and how we shape our environment.

As with cancer, these behaviors may play a significant role in risks associated with Alzheimer's.

Cutting down on substance use

Overconsumption of alcohol speeds up shrinkage of the brain. Though the subject is complex, scientific reviews including from Alzheimer's Disease International and Britain's National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) found people who drink heavily were more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia than moderate drinkers.

Similarly, people who smoke have higher risks of developing dementia and Alzheimer's disease than those who do not.

Taking care of our precious mental wellbeing also may contribute to reduction of risks linked to Alzheimer's disease. One study of more than 13,500 people at a California health organization concluded those who exhibited mid-life or late-life depressive symptoms had an elevated risk of developing dementia.

Scientists are also examining links between disrupted sleep and the onset of Alzheimer's. Given that getting the right amount of sleep, despite our often-hectic lives, helps us consolidate our memories, this area also makes for fertile ground for examination of potential ties to a disease that robs us of memory.

Heart health

Maintaining cardiovascular health is also important. Obesity, mostly due to poor nutrition choices and partially due to an inactive lifestyle, independently contributes to the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. But obesity is also a risk factor for diabetes and high blood pressure, which both contribute to the risk of developing Alzheimer's. People who are obese in midlife are 60% more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease later on.

Even environmental factors including air pollution and their potential to increase risks of developing impaired brain function, dementia and Alzheimer's disease have captured the attention of curious scientists interested in how making changes to our surroundings could reduce chances of being afflicted.

Under our control

Alzheimer's disease is traumatic for those afflicted and their loved ones, and heartbreakingly complex, not least due to genetic factors behind its progression in some people. The ambitious pursuit of treatments will continue for decades to come, as our understanding of what drives the disease grows.

Still, knowing that some important things are under our control – a healthy diet, taking a walk, and making time to rest and manage our stressful daily lives while cutting out harmful behaviors – should also instill within us a feeling of hope and optimism as we grapple with the challenges of Alzheimer's disease.

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