A question I am often asked is ‘How can I avoid developing dementia?’. Sadly, the answer to this question is ‘You can’t’, but there is convincing evidence that certain types of behaviour and lifestyle choices will reduce the risk.
Dementia is a condition that is caused by diseases of the brain. Dementia is an umbrella term describing the symptoms that occur when a person develops a disease that is classified as a type of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for around 62% of all cases of dementia. Alzheimer’s is characterised by abnormal deposits of proteins in the brain, called amyloid and tau, which cause brain cells to die. A number of other types of dementia, such as frontotemporal dementia and posterior cortical atrophy, have similar underlying disease processes to Alzheimer’s, although they are much less common.
Vascular dementia is the second most prevalent form of dementia caused by cerebrovascular disease in the brain. 17% of people with dementia have vascular dementia and a further 10% have mixed dementia – Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia occurring together.
Here some ways to reduce your risk of developing dementia:
- Use your brain in every way possible
The brain is the most important organ in the body, it controls all bodily processes and every other organ. To maintain good function, a brain needs to be exercised regularly and stretched. So, to minimise your risk of developing dementia, and to fend off its worst effects if you do have dementia, keeping your brain stimulated and using all of your senses is strongly advised. Learning a skill – how to play a musical instrument or speak a new language, for example – is especially effective,
There is convincing evidence that physical activity has a powerful protective effect. Building 30 minutes of moderately vigorous exercise into your everyday routine will make all the difference, not only to your risk of developing Alzheimer’s, but also other conditions that are more prevalent in later life. Physical activity is also associated with good mental health.
- Embrace nature and the outdoors
Being outside, breathing in fresh air, has many health benefits: fresh air helps people to digest food more effectively, improves blood pressure and heart rate, and strengthens the immune system. Contact with nature yields positive emotions, which are, in turn, associated with a range of long-term health habits, for example, giving up smoking, better sleep quality – important factors for reducing the risk of vascular disease. Research shows that “spending time in fresh air, surrounded by nature, increases energy levels in 90 percent of people” (Abigail Wise, Huffington Post).
Food that is good for heart health also has a positive impact on brain health. The body is a finely tuned organic system that can only function well with good nutrition. A diet low in fat, salt and processed carbohydrate is advisable. Healthy choices include fresh vegetables, fruit and nuts, whole grains, pulses, beans, lean meat and fish. Alcohol should be kept to a minimum, although there is some evidence to suggest that red wine in small quantity can have a protective effect against dementia.
- Pay attention to oral health
Cleaning teeth regularly and taking care of your gums helps to protect against dementia. Recent research* has linked bacteria associated with gum disease to the biochemistry of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain. Oral health minimises this risk. Alzheimer’s develops in the brain many years before the condition becomes symptomatic. It is important for everyone, young and old, to take heed of this advice. Instilling the importance of teeth-cleaning and good brushing action in children, creates a good oral hygiene habit at a young age.
Being in connection with other people and engaging in activities that you enjoy are crucial ways to enhance mental and physical health. Social isolation and loneliness, lack of purpose, contribution and depression, are risk factors for dementia. Older people, in particular, are vulnerable to isolation, as result of multiple losses, bereavements, life changes and health challenges. Research evidence shows that people who are socially disconnected from their communities are prone to a range of health conditions, including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, anxiety disorders, depression, disrupted sleep, abnormal immune responses and accelerated cognitive decline. Keeping connected and staying in touch with friends and family, maintaining the hobbies and pastimes you enjoy, are steps of immense importance in reducing the risk of developing dementia.
Even if you follow all this good advice, you may still develop dementia. The reason why some people develop dementia and others do not is little understood. Through research, we are learning more about the nature of these diseases all of the time. If you feel that you could contribute to research, whether you have a diagnosis of dementia or are, at the present time, healthy and well, Join Dementia Research would like to hear from you.
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* Porphyromonas gingivalis in Alzheimer’s disease brains: Evidence for disease causation and treatment with small-molecule inhibitors Dominy et al Science Advances 23 Jan 2019: Vol 5 No 1