These 5 healthy habits reduce dementia risk

"We still need more research to understand how to prevent dementia . . . but it's encouraging for people to know there are simple steps they can take now to reduce their risk of this devastating condition," says Rebecca Wood. (Credit: Phillip/Flickr)

There are five healthy behaviors that appear to significantly reduce the risk of dementia, according to a 35-year study that monitored men’s health habits.

Those habits are: regular exercise, no smoking, low bodyweight, a healthy diet, and a low alcohol intake.

The people who consistently followed four or five of these behaviors experienced a 60 percent reduction in dementia and cognitive decline—with exercise being the strongest mitigating factor—as well as 70 percent fewer instances of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, compared with people who followed none.


Published in PLOS ONE by researchers from Cardiff University, the Caerphilly Cohort Study is the longest of its kind to probe the influence of environmental factors in chronic disease.

“The size of reduction in the instance of disease owing to these simple healthy steps has really amazed us and is of enormous importance in an aging population,” says principle investigator Professor Peter Elwood from the School of Medicine. “What the research shows is that following a healthy lifestyle confers surprisingly large benefits to health—healthy behaviors have a far more beneficial effect than any medical treatment or preventative procedure.

“Taking up and following a healthy lifestyle is however the responsibility of the individual him or herself. Sadly, the evidence from this study shows that very few people follow a fully healthy lifestyle. Furthermore, our findings reveal that while the number of people who smoke has gone down since the study started, the number of people leading a fully healthy lifestyle has not changed,” he added.

Few do

Recent surveys indicate that less than one percent of people in Wales follow a completely healthy lifestyle, based on the five recommended behaviors, and that five percent of the population follow none of the healthy behaviors.

“If the men had been urged to adopt just one additional healthy behavior at the start of the study 35 years ago, and if only half of them complied, then during the ensuing 35 years there would have been a 13 percent reduction in dementia, a 12 percent drop in diabetes, six percent less vascular disease, and a five percent reduction in deaths,” Elwood explains.

Long-term study

The Caerphilly Cohort Study recorded the healthy behaviors of 2,235 men aged 45 to 59 in Caerphilly, South Wales. The study had multiple aims and has been the basis for over 400 research papers in the medical press. One of the most important aims was to examine the relationship between healthy lifestyles, chronic disease, and cognitive decline over a 35-year period; and to monitor changes in the take-up of healthy behaviors.

“We have known for some time that what is good for your heart is also good for your head, and this study provides more evidence to show that healthy living could significantly reduce the chances of developing dementia,” says Doug Brown, director of research and development at the Alzheimer’s Society.

“These large, longitudinal studies are expensive and complicated to run, but are essential to understand how dementia can be prevented. We are calling on the G8 Summit next week to commit to greater funding of important studies such as this one which give us hope for reducing the impact of dementia in the future.”

“We still need more research to understand how to prevent dementia . . . but it’s encouraging for people to know there are simple steps they can take now to reduce their risk of this devastating condition,” says Rebecca Wood, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK.

The Medical Research Council, Alzheimer’s Society, and the British Heart Foundation funded the research.

Source: Cardiff University