New research suggests the lifestyle risk factors for dementia may be different for men and women. Here’s how you can help keep your brain healthy as you age.

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A bit of forgetfulness as we get older is natural – we’ve all walked into a room and forgotten what we came for. But dementia is a very different thing.

Dementia causes severe, progressive cognitive decline, and it’s not a normal part of aging. According to Dementia Australia (as at September 2018), it’s the leading cause of disability in people over 65, and the second leading cause of death in Australia, after heart disease. It affects people in different ways, including a loss of memory, intellect, social skills and physical functioning.

There are over 100 different neurological conditions that can cause dementia. The most common is Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for around two thirds of dementia cases. Other common types include vascular dementia, Lewy body disease, and frontotemporal dementia.

Early signs can include memory loss, confusion, personality changes, apathy, withdrawal, and a loss of ability of perform everyday tasks.

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Lifestyle risks for dementia

Family history and genetics can influence your risk of developing dementia, but lifestyle factors such as obesity, smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, depression and a lack of physical activity can also play a role. In fact, a 2017 study published in Alzheimer's Research & Therapy suggested that lifestyle factors could be at the root of about half of dementia cases.

“To reduce your risk, it’s important to keep your body and brain healthy,” says Associate Professor Michael Woodward, AM, honorary medical advisor at Dementia Australia and director of aged care at Austin Health.

“This means regularly socialising, reducing cardiovascular risk and maintaining mental wellbeing, as well as a healthy diet and regular exercise. If you’re experiencing forgetfulness or memory loss talk to your GP about an assessment.”

Interestingly, new research shows there may be differences in the lifestyle risks for men and women. This was outlined in a 2018 report by the ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research (CEPAR), which looks at several recent studies that suggest a gender-specific approach may be key to reducing the risk of dementia.

“For women, maintaining social connection and living with someone were found to reduce the risk of dementia,” Associate Professor Woodward explains. “For males, maintaining positive mental health and managing depression played a greater role.”

If you have any questions about dementia or concerns for yourself or others, you can call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500. This is a free and confidential service provided by Dementia Australia where you can chat with caring and experienced professionals.

MORE: What causes dementia?

Tips for reducing dementia risk

Men and women alike can reduce their risk of developing dementia by taking steps towards a healthier lifestyle. Here are a few things Dementia Australia recommends.

  • Eat a healthy diet. Just like your body, your brain needs good nourishment to stay healthy and functioning at its best. A balanced diet full of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, legumes, fish and lean meat, and low in processed foods and saturated fat, may help reduce your risk of dementia. Foods high in antioxidants (such as blueberries and tomatoes) and ‘good fats’ (such as fish and avocadoes) have also been shown to be good for brain health.

  • Get moving. Make the time to get sweaty – regular exercise is linked to better brain health and lower dementia risk. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and may stimulate the growth of brain cells and strengthen connections between them. It also helps improve your heart health, which is linked to brain health.

  • Keep your brain active. Your brain loves to be challenged – learning and doing new activities can help to build new brain cells and strengthen connections. Things like reading, doing crosswords or sudoku, learning a new language, taking a course, playing musical instruments, art and crafts or other hobbies can keep your brain stimulated.

  • Look after your heart health. Conditions that affect the heart or blood vessels – like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity – can also impact your brain health, particularly if they occur in middle age. Look after your heart with regular health checks and follow the advice of your health professional.

  • Stay socially connected. Loneliness can impact your health in many ways, and research has shown that social connection is important for brain health. Spend time with family, friends and people whose company you enjoy. If you can combine a social catch up with a physical activity or a hobby that activates your mind, even better.

  • Reduce your alcohol intake. Drinking too much alcohol over a number of years may increase your risk of developing dementia. The Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol recommend that healthy men and women drink no more than two standard drinks on any day.

  • Quit smoking. Smoking is linked to so many health risks, and dementia is one of them. If you need help quitting, talk to your GP or contact Quit.

  • Manage your mental health. Depression may also be linked to a higher risk of dementia. If you are experiencing symptoms like persistently low mood, fatigue, apathy or hopelessness, it’s essential to seek help.

For more information, visit dementia.org.au or call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500. This is a free and confidential service where you can chat with caring and experienced professionals about dementia and memory loss concerns for yourself or others.

MORE: The brain-boosting diet