• People who have worked in mentally stimulating fields may have a significantly reduced risk of developing dementia in later life.
  • Staying physically fit can also help to fend off debilitating conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
  • Even getting active at the age of 60 and above has been found to help with cognitive performance.

Every year, around 10 million people are diagnosed with dementia and, worldwide, around 50 million people are living with this debilitating condition. Globally, it is one of the biggest causes of disability among older people. As life expectancy increases, particularly in medium- and low-income economies, the incidence of dementia increases, too.

Symptoms include failing memory, problems with emotional control and a general deterioration in cognitive performance, behaviour and the ability to carry out everyday activities.

a chart showing the number of people with dementia in lower-income countries.
On the rise globally, dementia is becoming more prevalent in lower-income countries.
Image: Alzheimer’s Disease International

Typically triggered by illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease or strokes, dementia is far more prevalent in older people, but is not considered a normal part of the ageing process.

Active minds

There may also be a link between the way you spent your working life and your risk of developing dementia as you get older.

A study led by epidemiologist Mika Kivimäki of the UK’s University College London, examined data from 107,896 participants to assess whether people with more intellectually stimulating jobs face a lower dementia risk than those working in less cognitively demanding roles. Their report, Cognitive stimulation in the workplace, plasma proteins, and risk of dementia: three analyses of population cohort studies, was published in the British Medical Journal.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to combat Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer’s Diesease, a result of rapid ageing that causes dementia, is a growing concern. Dementia, the seventh leading cause of death worldwide, cost the world $1.25 trillion in 2018, and affected about 50 million people in 2019. Without major breakthroughs, the number of people affected will triple by 2050, to 152 million.

To catalyse the fight against Alzheimer's, the World Economic Forum is partnering with the Global CEO Initiative (CEOi) to form a coalition of public and private stakeholders – including pharmaceutical manufacturers, biotech companies, governments, international organizations, foundations and research agencies.

The initiative aims to advance pre-clinical research to advance the understanding of the disease, attract more capital by lowering the risks to investment in biomarkers, develop standing clinical trial platforms, and advance healthcare system readiness in the fields of detection, diagnosis, infrastructure and access.

It concludes that the risk of dementia in old age was: “Lower in individuals with cognitively stimulating jobs than in those with non-stimulating jobs.” While it won’t necessarily prevent dementia, mental stimulation may delay its onset by around a year and a half, the report says.

One possible explanation seems to be that lower levels of plasma proteins were found in samples taken from study participants who performed more cognitively stimulating activities. These proteins may inhibit the development of healthy brain function.

Active bodies

Other recent studies have highlighted the importance of physical fitness, too. Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology have studied data from more than 30,000 people, looking at their changing fitness levels.

Their findings indicate that people who stayed fit throughout the duration of the study period were around 50% less likely to develop dementia than those who were the least fit. The really good news is that those who started out unfit and then became fitter over time saw the same levels of risk-decline.

A separate study in Canada took three groups of sedentary ‘older adults’, then watched what happened when they exercised. A control group did stretching. Another group did moderate continuous exercise, while the third did high-intensity interval training.

Through a series of memory tests, the researchers from the McMaster University in Ontario found those who exercised more had improved cognitive performance – indicating that it is never too late to get active and accrue some benefits.