Dementia is one of the most feared health conditions associated with getting older. Whilst it is estimated that 1 million will be living with dementia by 2025 it is a preventable condition and there are steps that can be taken to slow or even halt the process.
What is dementia?
Dementia is most commonly associated with Alzheimer’s disease, a condition in which brain cells die causing memory loss and cognitive decline. Dementia is actually a collection of symptoms which can include memory loss and difficulties with language and problem-solving. It is usually caused by diseases that affect brain function, a stroke or Alzheimer’s for example.
How to avoid it?
Whilst there are many different types of dementia, there are a number of things you can do to avoid developing the condition. Most of these are simple lifestyle changes that will ensure you stay healthier for longer in mind and body.
Just like your body, your brain needs to be kept active in order to stay healthy. Whilst there is not definitive proof that brain training and exercise can prevent dementia, many studies have found a link between brain training and fending off dementia. This is simply because by keeping your mind active, you continue to utilise your cognitive processes. This means that memory, reasoning and language are constantly working and don’t have a chance to fall into decline. Constantly challenging your brain can massively slow the progress of dementia. What works varies from person to person but you could try:
• Performing tasks such as eating and writing with your non-dominant hand.
• Picking up a new hobby, learning a new skill, taking up an instrument or learning a language.
• Working on a crossword or sudoku puzzle.
• Taking a local adult education class.
• Doing online mental games and using brain-training apps.
Keeping your mind active can reduce the amount of damage done by diseases like Alzheimer’s, promote nerve function from the brain to the rest of the body and stimulate the production of new, healthy brain cells.
According to the Alzheimer’s society, there is evidence that eating a ‘Mediterranean diet’ is beneficial for brain health. The nutrients found in this diet prevent inflammation commonly associated with Alzheimer's and have the added bonus of reducing cholesterol. Things to eat include:
• Oily fish such as anchovies and mackerel, as well as salmon. These are all incredible sources of omega 3 which can limit the effects of oxidative stress and provide a protective layer around brain cells which also benefits communication between the cells.
• Fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants. These include prunes, raisins, red grapes, berries, leafy greens, bell peppers and broccoli. Antioxidants work similarly to omega 3 in diminishing damage caused by oxidative stress. They also encourage the production of proteins in the brain that supports cell health and production.
Following this diet will mean a decrease in the amounts of saturated fats, artificial sugar and red meats which all have a significant impact on blood pressure and cholesterol levels, both of which have been linked to dementia.
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, whilst there is no concrete evidence that physical exercise can prevent the onset of dementia, the Alzheimer’s Society wholeheartedly encourages leading an active lifestyle. No matter what stage of dementia you may be at, or if you just want to nip it in the bud, exercise can improve mood, confidence and self-esteem.
Certain forms of dementia can be caused by high blood pressure. Left uncontrolled, high blood pressure can narrow the blood vessels in the brain and restrict oxygen flow to cells. This can cause brain cells to be damaged or die, as well as increasing the risk of a stroke which may damage brain cells further. Fortunately, blood pressure is easy to monitor and control by making a few simple lifestyle changes. Following a healthy diet, such as a Mediterranean diet, can help to lower cholesterol and therefore keep blood pressure at a normal level.
Limiting the amount of alcohol you drink to the recommended amounts is also an important change to make. Alcohol raises both cholesterol and blood pressure, increasing the risk of damage to the brain cells. Alcohol also causes nerve damage and can cause the brain to shrink, meaning brain cells die and less new ones are produced. Excessive alcohol consumption has also been linked to the malabsorption of essential vitamins and minerals that can cause chronic memory disorders.
Bear in mind that your BMI may also have an impact on your risk of dementia. A BMI of 25 or over indicates that you are overweight, whilst a BMI of 18.5 or under indicates that you are underweight. Being either can increase your risk of dementia. Being overweight is often linked to high cholesterol and high blood pressure which can lead to dementia. However, research suggests that underweight people have an even higher chance of getting dementia. This is attributed to the fact that underweight people may not be consuming enough vitamins that aid healthy brain function, as well as the fact that damaging habits, such as drinking and smoking, often play a part in weight loss.
Stopping smoking is another good way to prevent dementia. As well as raising blood pressure, smoking restricts the oxygen flow to the brain. The good news is that the risk is reversible for smokers. Giving up in your 50s can mean that your dementia risk at age 70 or above is the same as someone who has never smoked.
Because there are so many different types of dementia, unfortunately, there is not one simple way to stop it from happening. Fortunately, by taking these steps you should be able to decrease the risk of developing symptoms or at least slow the process down. Like anything, following a healthy lifestyle is of paramount importance and can help prevent more issues than just dementia.