Three big lifestyle factors have been pinpointed by scientists as increasing your future risk of dementia.
More than 4,100 people were surveyed and asked about their general health behaviours before having their brain’s scanned.
The landmark study found people who reported unhealthy habits were already showing signs of brain damage earlier in life before dementia had appeared.
After comparing the survey responses to brain scans, experts at Maastricht University pinpointed three contributing factors: bad diet, high blood pressure and smoking.
The respondents were given a score based on a wide range of answers about their health habits.
People who were given a low score on lifestyle markers were also found to “have more difficulty with information processing, performing complex tasks and paying attention”.
When the brain scans were carried out, it was found that those with low scores and presumed higher risk of dementia were already showing some signs of brain damage despite having no symptoms.
According to the study published in the journal Neurology, the damage consists of “shrinkage of the brain and damage to vessels in the brain”, with the most significant changes observed in men.
Associate professor and researcher Sebastian Köhler: “We already knew that people with an unhealthy lifestyle have a higher risk of dementia.
“However, our research now also shows that the signs of dementia are already present, namely brain damage and cognitive problems.”
But there is a positive: the study also found it’s never too late to make changes and improve you chances of avoiding dementia.
Professor Köhler said: “That is bad but also good news, because people can do something about those bad omens.”
“If you have a high risk profile at the age of 55, you can lower your dementia risk by, for example, stopping smoking or opting for a healthier diet.
“We expect that you can also prevent further damage to your brain and cognitive problems.
“Our research shows how incredibly important a healthy lifestyle is for the brain, in the short and long term.”
The study supports a growing body of evidence that age is not the only risk factor associated with dementia.
World Health Organisation experts have warned all of us to get on top of our lifestyles at a young age to ensure good cognitive health later in life.
The global health body says “regular exercise, not smoking, avoiding harmful use of alcohol, controlling their weight, eating a healthy diet, and maintaining healthy blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels” can reduce risk.
It also points to “depression, low educational attainment, social isolation, and cognitive inactivity” as potential contributing factors.