Slow down dementia by getting healthy

gabriel E b VNmtGJY unsplash
gabriel E b VNmtGJY unsplash

Let your body help your mind reduce dementia risk

There is a range of brain dysfunctions that is generally called dementia. It can take several forms, the most common being Alzheimer’s Disease that affects roughly two thirds of all people diagnosed with dementia.

DementiaNZ CEO Paul Sullivan says that common symptoms include memory loss, a breakdown in logical thinking, and the various emotional responses to these as the disease progresses. People can feel anger, anxiety and fear when their ability to cope with the everyday erodes, and the world make less and less sense. Once-sociable people may withdraw from activities, and those who were formerly even-tempered can lash out in frustration.

But, say Paul, it’s not all doom and gloom! With the right support, you can live well with dementia.

“As a given, cognitive decline exists and physical things happen to the brain, but that doesn’t have to impede experiencing moments of joy every day,” he explains.

Each person experiences this progressive disease differently, and dementia decline is characteristically uneven, with understanding, memories and abilities ebbing and flowing from day to day. The causes of dementia are still not known, but what research has determined is that improving your overall health can reduce the risk of dementia by 30%, and slow its progress once you’re diagnosed.

In other words, Paul explains, what’s good for your body is also good for your brain.

What you can do to reduce your risk:

  • Improve your diet.

More and more scientists, doctors and nutritionists are advocating good brain health through a better diet. Of course, green leafy vegetables are essential. Eat more whole vegetables and fruit, and a lot less red meat, processed starches, saturated fats and sugar, and you’ll do your brain a favour.

A combination of the DASH diet (dietary approaches to reduce hypertension) and the Mediterranean diet that’s so good for your heart, this MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH intervention for neurodegenerative delay) has been shown to reduce the risk of dementia by up to 53%, slow cognitive decline and improve memory.

  • Exercise regularly, aerobic or otherwise.

This is important at any stage of life, but becomes vital the older you get. Regular aerobic exercise (getting your heart rate up) has been shown to be at the top of the ‘essential’ list for reducing dementia risk and improving brain function. It has the greatest effect of all steps you could take, including reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s specifically by up to 45%.

‘Exercise’ can mean a lot of different things, and not everyone can sustain 20-30 minutes of daily aerobic workout. Brisk walking, cleaning or gardening can also be effective, and certainly any regular exercise done by people over age 60 can ‘grow’ their brains, or at least halt age-related brain shrinkage.

  • Drink less alcohol.

Let’s face it, alcohol is a poison. A little bit won’t hurt you, but alcohol abuse has been linked to all kinds of diseases, including cancer and a form of dementia called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS). Too much alcohol in your body long-term can reduce vitamin B1, which leads to permanent memory loss if you don’t get treatment.

The best thing you can do for your brain and your body is limit your alcohol intake. A wine with dinner, a beer after work, and several alcohol-free days each week can help reduce your health risks.

  • Stop smoking!

Well, you should do this anyway, but not many people know that smoking has been linked to dementia. Two forms of the disease, Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, seemed to be linked to vascular problems – your heart and blood circulation. Smoking is also linked to vascular problems, and smokers who quit may reduce their dementia risk levels to that of non-smokers.

Even though tobacco company research has found that nicotine can actually reduce dementia risk, can we really trust their findings? Meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence that smoking is the number one cause of cancer, heart disease and other life-threatening conditions. Smokers who somehow survive to old age are thought to be 14% more likely to develop dementia than non-smokers.

  • Get your blood pressure down.

Everything you do to improve your health has an effect on your brain too. High blood pressure (hypertension) in middle age has been associated with heart disease, strokes, and a higher risk of dementia later on. If your blood pressure is 140/90 or higher, taking steps to reduce it will lower your risk of vascular dementia, the next most common form after Alzheimer’s.

One important step (or actually, a lot of steps) is exercise. Another is the MIND diet already mentioned, along with less alcohol and caffeine, losing any excess weight and throwing away your cigarettes. Your doctor might recommend medication for lowering your blood pressure, but try those lifestyle changes first – there is no evidence that the medication reduces dementia risk.

  • Socialise! Friends and family lower your stress.

Humans are biologically social animals. We’re hard-wired to maintain relationships with up to 150 people. We need to interact with our families and friends, and the more relationships we have the healthier we are. Your brother might drive you crazy, or your daughter-in-law may be annoying, but you still need to interact with them – for your own mental health.

It might seem easier and more relaxing to stay home and vegetate, but loneliness is actually bad for your health. Lonely people suffer more from stress, hypertension, heart disease, depression – and dementia. That’s why it’s a good idea to get out and join things, visit relatives, call friends and generally socialise.

Paul says, “social connection is important. They let you engage in activities that are meaningful for you, and interact with loved ones – communicate.”

Look after your whole self

It isn’t a coincidence that all the things you can do to lower your dementia risk are, well, good for you! Your body and mind work together, and there’s nothing you can do to one that doesn’t affect the other. That’s why eating well, keeping fit, losing weight, quitting smoking – they all sound like the usual ‘stay healthy’ advice, but are also great steps to lowering your risk of dementia.

Looking after your entire self, including maintaining your active and enjoyable social life (which is why a little bit of alcohol is okay!) is the key to keeping your brain healthy and functioning the way it should, for as long as possible.