Almost half of dementia instances can be attributed to seven lifestyle factors that include physical inactivity, midlife obesity and low educational attainment, but most people are unaware of the risks, according to a research report released today.

The ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research (CEPAR) in collaboration with Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) released new findings in the report Cognitive ageing and decline: Insights from recent research.

Professor Kaarin Anstey

CEPAR chief investigator and NHMRC principal research fellow at NeuRA Professor Kaarin Anstey, who led the research, has estimated that close to 50 per cent of dementia cases can be attributed to seven key modifiable lifestyle factors.

Those risk factors – and the proportion of dementia cases attributed to them – are physical inactivity (18 per cent), midlife obesity (17 per cent), low educational attainment (15 per cent), midlife hypertension (14 per cent), depression (8 per cent), smoking (4 per cent) and diabetes (2 per cent).

However, the knowledge base around the causes of dementia in the senior community varies greatly, which raises the need for in-depth dementia awareness workshops and community involvement, Professor Anstey said.

“While some detrimental attributing factors to dementia such as smoking and alcohol consumption were known, other factors connected to cognitive health were unknown to over 95 per cent of the sample population,” she said.

“This highlights the need for increased local community engagement and advocacy.”

The factors that predict resilience to dementia for all people include younger age, higher education, stronger grip and more cognitive activity, the report said.

And while less depressive symptoms make men more resilient to dementia, women can benefit from several things including living with someone, being married, faster walking time and volunteering more often.

In addition to risk factors, the report also highlights the rising numbers of people with dementia, which is the leading cause of disability among Australians over 65, and the increasing cost to families, carers, and the economy.

People with dementia and those who care for them having to withdraw from the workforce are among the indirect costs of dementia to society and the Australian economy, the report said.

For someone with moderate dementia, the care hours are 17 per week on average, while severe cases involve hours similar to a full-time job. In 2016, the cost of foregone work hours was estimated to be $5.5 billion, according to the research.

Professor Anstey said further investment into ageing research was needed to identify more risk factors, adapt the workplace for older workers, and develop strategies to guide financial decision-making in older age.

“We need to develop better diagnostic tests and assessments, increase community education to ensure risk factors attributed to dementia are better managed, and support carers to reduce carer distress in the broader community,” she said.

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