Dementia: Neuroscientist urges people to look after their brains

Alzheimer's and dementia research, conceptual image. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of a human brain on a screen.
Photo credit: Getty Images.

Tiny changes to people's lifestyles can slash their risk of developing dementia, a world-renowned brain health expert says.

Clinical neuroscientist Professor Vladimir Hachinski is the recipient of the 2024 Ryman Prize, a $250,000 grant for the world's best discovery, development, advance or achievement that enhances quality of life for older people.

Hachinski, who is based at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at Western University in Canada, told Saturday Morning he encouraged people to look after their brains like an expensive car.

The human brain was "the three most precious pounds in the known universe", he said.

"If you had a car that was worth millions and millions and millions, I think you'd take care of it, so that's the analogy."

The model Hachinski has developed is referred to as the ABC. It covers activity and sleep, balanced diet and blood pressure control, and connecting with others.

People only required a "really small" change in each category to see health results, he said.

"If you manage to walk 3000 steps a day, you decrease the risks of dying early. If you manage to do 800 steps, the risk of dementia is diminished."

If those steps were walked in nature, people would see decreased anxiety levels, stress and heart rate, he said.

"The basic idea is 'what's the least that gives me the most?'"

Caroline Bartle and Professor Vladimir Hachinski.
Caroline Bartle and Professor Vladimir Hachinski. Photo credit: Supplied / Kirk Vogel.

Hachinski said many people saw dementia as an inevitable consequence of ageing, but that was not true.

Five percent of people in their 70s have dementia, rising to 24 percent of people in their 80s and 37 percent in their 90s.

"At all stages of life, the chances of keeping your mental abilities are greater than developing dementias."

Ryman Healthcare dementia project specialist Caroline Bartle said some of the risk factors for dementia were not preventable, with genetics playing a role.

"If you're a woman, you're much more at risk of developing dementia. That's because we live much longer and arguably there's a lot more stress in our lives, having to juggle many different things."

However, for the risk factors that were preventable, even changes later in life made a difference, she said.

For example, stopping smoking - even after the age of 65 - decreased people's risk of developing dementia.