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There is finally some hopeful news about Alzheimer's disease. New research shows that more than a third of all cases of Alzheimer’s dementia linked to nine risk factors and that small lifestyle changes beginning in childhood could possibly protect against, or delay, memory loss.
There's still no cure for Alzheimer's and it's not proven that behavioral changes can definitely prevent it. But in the first research of its kind, 24 of the world's leading experts identified nine risk factors that, if caught and modified throughout different stages of life, can protect the brain as we age.
Researchers from the University College London named three of the most powerful factors in reducing risk of memory loss: increasing education in early life; reducing hearing loss in middle age; and stopping smoking after age 65.
"We know what’s good for our hearts is good for our mind," said NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres. "But we now also know that taking care of our mind, from the earliest ages through all decades of life, is important to reducing our risk of developing Alzheimer's disease."
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The lifestyle changes may help some people, but there are others who will develop Alzheimer's for a multitude of reasons, ranging from genetic predisposition to reasons not yet known to doctors. "It's analogous to heart disease," said Torres. "We can do everything right but still have a heart attack."
Early next year, the Alzheimer's Association plans to begin a $20 million study rigorously testing to see if certain simple day-to-day activities really help older adults stay sharp. In the interim, there seems to be little downside to following the recommendations from the new report.
These are the nine key risk factors — and changes you can make to protect your brain:
1. Say no to cigarettes
Evidence shows that smoking increases the risk of cognitive decline, especially for those who continue to smoke after age 65. According to the British researchers, there would be an estimated 5 percent reduction in the number of dementia cases if everyone stopped smoking.
A 2013 study found that late-life depression can increase the risk of dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide and also increases the risk of several major diseases and disorders including addiction, suicidal behavior, diabetes and heart disease, which are themselves among the world's biggest killers.
More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. There is clear evidence linked excess weight to Alzheimer's, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, which are also considered risk factors for dementia. The upside is, losing just 5 to 10 percent of excess body weight can have a very positive impact on chronic disease risk. So, it's never too early or too late to begin a weight-loss program.
It's known that a healthy diet, exercise, and stress reduction that’s good for both the body and the heart is also essential for the health of the mind, particularly in terms of preventing dementia.
The early years are crucial to brain development when pathways in the brain are being laid down. Continuing that education into adulthood is important to reducing the risk of dementia.
Studies show that formal education in any stage of life will help reduce your risk of cognitive decline and dementia. According to the British researchers, the total number of dementia cases would be reduced by 8 percent if all people continued education past the age of 15.
Even as adult, taking a class at a local college, community center, or online may help improve your brain function.
6. Hearing loss
Hearing loss, especially in the middle years, is one of the most surprising findings.
Neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health examined the prevalence of hearing loss in late middle-aged adults with a family history of Alzheimer’s. They found evidence of a link between hearing loss and mild cognitive impairment, a condition that can be a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. Hearing loss can often lead to social isolation, which may then lead to one’s brain being less challenged by interesting conversations or activities.
Limiting stress and monitoring our blood pressure over time are pivotal in optimizing our brain health. In this case, the risk of high blood pressure, if not treated well, can lead to changes in the brain like small strokes that can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s.
8. Physical activity
Engaging in regular cardiovascular exercise elevates our heart rate and increases blood flow to the brain which promotes optimal brain wave activity. There’s a growing body of evidence that shows an association between physical activity and reduced risk of cognitive decline, often a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. Here’s my exercise prescription for good brain health: 30 minutes a day of moderate intensity exercise like hiking, biking and dancing.
9. Social isolation
Brain health experts are emphasizing the importance of staying socially engaged as studies show this is a potent risk factor for brain health. Social activities may include picking up a new hobby, volunteering at a local shelter, or sharing activities and experiences with friends and loved ones. No matter what you choose, pursuing social activities that are meaningful to you is key.
The research results were published Thursday in the British journal Lancet and presented at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference.
The Associated Press contributed to this report