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Episode 6 - Better Brains

Let’s talk about dementia and its risk factors

By the year 2050, it is projected that the number of people living with dementia will triple from 50 to 152 million, due to unprecedented population ageing.

Many people who have witnessed a loved one live with any form of dementia often wonder whether they too will develop it. As a dementia researcher, one question I am asked all the time is “what are the risk factors for developing dementia?”

While certain genes and family history are linked to a person’s risk of developing dementia, research estimates that approximately 40% of all dementia is attributable to risk factors that are highly modifiable, including low mood, poor sleep, poor heart health, and low cognitive and social engagement.

When we talk about ‘modifiable’ risk factors for dementia – what we mean is that certain components of our lifestyle can be modified or altered to reduce our risk of dementia, often by making small changes to our daily behaviours and habits.

Some of these risk factors include cigarette smoking, low mood, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, being physically inactive, having poor sleep, being socially isolated, and not engaging in cognitively stimulating activities.

Because some risk for dementia is modifiable, this presents as a great opportunity for us to take charge of our brain health, particularly as there currently remains no treatment or cure for Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, such as vascular dementia.

Taking charge of your brain health to reduce your risk of dementia looks like:

  • Looking after your heart. It may surprise you to learn that what is good for the heart is good for the brain. Book a heart health check up with your GP. Find a form of movement that you enjoy and get started. Start or join a walking group. Find support to quit smoking. Sign up for a fitness class at the local community club. Learn how to cook some heart healthy meals by visiting the Heart Foundation’s Heart Healthy Recipes Page.

  • Looking after your mental health and managing your stress levels. Research shows that anxiety, depression and stress can negatively affect our brain health. If you are struggling with your mood or stress levels, reach out to your GP, who can also refer you to other health professionals, such as a clinical psychologist, to ensure you are getting the support you need to look after your mental wellbeing.

  • Prioritising your sleep. Sleep has a major role in maintaining good brain health, and sleep disturbances, such as shorter sleep periods, frequent awakenings throughout the night, reduced sleep quality, and obstructive sleep apnoea can increase our risk for dementia. Establish a sleep schedule and make it a relaxing routine you enjoy. Turn the TV and your phone off 1-hour before bed. Engaging in some exercise throughout the day also helps, as this helps regulate our body clock and makes it easier to fall asleep at night.

  • Getting socially and cognitively engaged. Keeping the brain and mind stimulated and active is very important for brain health, so it’s time to get out there. Organise that long-overdue catch up with friends, whether it’s in-person or over the phone. Volunteer at a local organisation or with your council. Learn a new language or take up a new sport or hobby, such as painting, arts and crafts, using new technology, cooking, or playing a musical instrument.

Remember, it is never too late to make small changes to your lifestyle to improve your brain health.

Although we know that these factors are associated with an increased risk of developing dementia, we and other scientists are currently trying to understand whether modifying these risk factors can delay, or even prevent, thinking and memory decline from happening in the first place.

Our latest research trial, called the BetterBrains trial, aims to test whether personalised lifestyle and educational behaviour change strategies targeted at modifying dementia risk factors can delay thinking and memory problems in middle-aged adults (40-70 years) with a family history of dementia.

BetterBrains is one of the first clinical trials of dementia prevention globally to be delivered entirely online – meaning that participants can be involved in the trial regardless of where they are located in Australia.

The BetterBrains trial aims to recruit 1510 people living in the community throughout Australia. Of these people, 755 participants will be randomised to the intervention group and will receive the personalised BetterBrains program, which includes 1:1 telehealth coaching with an allied health professional trained in motivational interviewing to set and achieve goals to modify identified risk factors. The other 755 participants will receive health education materials about dementia risk reduction.

To learn more about the BetterBrains trial, or to sign-up, please visit our website at Recruitment for the trial will be ending on the 15th of May 2023, so get in quick.


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