Science to Share

Age is more than just a number: The determinants for aging

Puzzle your brain healthy?

In January, The Lancet Public Health reported that the number of cases of dementia worldwide will triple by 2050. In the Netherlands, it is expected that we will go from 260.000 people with dementia in 2016 to 620.000 in 2050. The Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care estimates that 40% of these cases can potentially be prevented by an active lifestyle. An active lifestyle includes regular exercise, but also challenging the brain itself appears to be very important. Through the project Het Nieuwsgierige Brein (The Curious Brain), the Alzheimer Centre Limburg is trying to find out what influence mental and social activities have on the risk of dementia later in life.

The Curious Brain

The Alzheimer Centrum Limburg has a special research line called Risk and Prevention of Dementia and tries to gain insight in what measures you can take yourself to reduce the risk of dementia. Lukas Duffner’s PhD research is called Het Nieuwsgierige Brein and is conducted within this research line. ‘Within Het Nieuwsgierige Brein we want to investigate whether people who are more mentally or socially active have a lower risk of developing dementia,’ says Lukas. ‘We focus mainly on leisure activities. For example, puzzles, games such as draughts and chess, learning a new language and playing an instrument. The role of social activities and maintaining social contacts is also becoming increasingly clear, such as meeting up with friends or joining a club.’

Lukas Duffner, PhD student at Het Nieuwsgierige Brein.

The findings of Het Nieuwsgierige Brein will eventually be applied within the existing MijnBreincoach app. The aim of the application is to give you insight into your personal dementia risk profile. The app focuses on personal feedback and goals. Every day you receive an advice, for example a Mediterranean recipe, a puzzle or an assignment in which you have to get in touch with old friends. This app was developed by the Alzheimer Centrum Limburg and will be updated if new insights are available.

Challenge your brain

You can challenge your brain by constantly learning new things and performing difficult tasks. The Alzheimer Centrum Limburg analysed data from an English study and came to the conclusion that people who undertake many mental and social activities have a lower risk of developing dementia later in life. A possible explanation for this is that activating the brain by being mentally or socially active contributes to a kind of ‘cognitive reserve’, which ensures that your brain is able to compensate for brain damage later in life.

‘We are the medicine’ was the title of the campaign conducted by the Alzheimer Centre Limburg to make people aware of what they can do themselves to reduce the risk of dementia. ‘People often think that genetic factors determine everything, but that’s not true. Genes do play a role, but they are not the only factor,’ says Lukas. ‘COVID-19 has created a new drive in the research field of mental and social factors. During the lockdown everyone was very limited in social contacts. That underlined how important it is for your general wellbeing to have social contacts. Within Het Nieuwsgierige Brein, we now also want to better understand the link between feelings of loneliness and the risk of dementia,’ Lukas underlines.

Influencing your health now

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. 70% of dementia patients suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. In the Netherlands, 1 in 3 women will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, while 1 in 7 men will get the disease. Alzheimer Nederland works together with the Alzheimer Centre Limburg and participates in the research being carried out. An active lifestyle is central to this, which means, among other things: enough exercise, healthy eating, no smoking and little alcohol. It is also important to activate the brain and maintain social contacts.

The gender difference in Alzheimer’s disease diagnoses.

Vera Otten, science editor at Alzheimer Nederland, says it is important to be aware that changes occur in your brain up to 20 years before you develop dementia symptoms. Research shows that from the age of 45 to 50 your lifestyle mostly affects your brain, but the sooner you start the easier it is to keep up. Vera does add an important nuance, ‘It is important to remember that you cannot prevent everything. Besides the 40% who can prevent dementia by an active lifestyle, the other 60% can live very healthily but still get dementia.’ It is also good to remember that an active lifestyle does not only reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. It is also important to be aware of the fact that an active lifestyle not only reduces the risk of developing dementia. If you work on an active lifestyle, you also reduce the risk of, for example, cardiovascular disease.

Vera Otten, science editor at Alzheimer Nederland.

It is important to be aware that, especially, between the ages of 45 and 65, you can contribute a lot to your health in later life. So when it comes to brain health, it’s not just about eating healthy, but also about keeping your brain active and staying curious. To get used to new habits Vera has another tip, ‘Make an If… Then… plan, to make it easy for yourself to stick to it.’ To activate your brain you can make a plan, for example: If I have breakfast, I will make a sudoku at the same time. If you want to learn a new habit, it helps to link it to an already existing habit. You can already start today with Lukas’ tip, ‘Do something fun with your friends and keep challenging your brain!’.


Duffner LA, Deckers K, Cadar D, Steptoe A, de Vugt M, Köhler S. The role of cognitive and social leisure activities in dementia risk: assessing longitudinal associations of modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors. Epidemiol Psychiatr Sci [Internet]. 2022 Jan 11. Available from:

Factsheet cijfers en feiten over dementie – Alzheimer Nederland

Het Nieuwsgierige Brein – Het Alzheimer Centrum Limburg

Nichols E, Steinmetz JD, Vollset SE, Fukutaki K, Chalek J, Abd-Allah F, et al. Estimation of the global prevalence of dementia in 2019 and forecasted prevalence in 2050: an analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019. Lancet Public Heal. 2022 Feb 1;7(2):e105–25.

Livingston G, Huntley J, Sommerlad A, Ames D, Ballard C, Banerjee S, et al. Dementia prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commission. Lancet [Internet]. 2020 Aug 8. Available from: