While a lot of people tend to think of old age when it comes to dementia, dementia isn'ta normal part of ageing. Nine out of ten older people don’t get dementia. And it isn't just linked to older generations, it can affect people under the age of 65 too.
This common condition involves cognitive decline and can affect everything from someone's thinking to their language - it can vary from person to person. While there's no known cure, there are certain things you can do to potentially reduce your risk of dementia or delay it.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is the name of a condition caused by different diseases of the brain that damage the nerve cells. It can affect the parts of the brain used for memory, learning and language and can have an impact on the person's ability to carry out everyday tasks.
Dementia or cognitive decline is a common condition in Ireland with an estimated 35,000 people effected. It's important to note, it's not a normal part of ageing. There are many different forms of dementia but Alzheimer’s and microvascular dementia (related to ‘mini strokes’ in the brain) are the most common.
Keeping Our Brains Active
From our earliest formation in the womb, throughout life, the brain continues to change and develop; laying down new memories, skills and nerve pathways like an ever evolving map. These links may be strengthened and improved over time or can be altered by disease.
The brain is not a static thing. It needs to be thought of as a muscle that can be worked and trained. It is a fact that the ‘bigger’ the brain, the less likely an individual is to develop significant memory problems. For example: Ongoing education and social interaction increase brain size. Obesity has been shown to decrease it.
There is plenty of ongoing research in this area but there are certain simple things that have been determined as good for our brain health. Some forms of dementia are related to blood vessel diseases, like mini strokes. Therefore it makes sense that healthy living which helps to prevent the likes of heart disease, is likely to improve brain health too.
How to Reduce Your Risk of Dementia
While dementia can't be cured, there are certain things you can do to potentially reduce your risk of dementia or delay it by adopting a healthy lifestyle. Here are some useful steps you can take.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
We are fast becoming the most obese nation in Europe so this well known risk factor for dementia needs serious consideration. Keeping a healthy weight, especially in middle age can lower dementia risk. One study showed that MRI brain scans of obese patients (Body Mass Index > 30) showed reduced amounts of brain tissue and a brain appearance up to 16 years older than those with normal weight.
Exercise can potentially help reduce your risk of dementia. Research has shown that keeping physically active, with regular exercise three or more times per week has been linked to lowering your dementia risk.
Both exercise and maintaining a healthy BMI will help reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure and diabetes which are also risk factors for dementia. If you have high blood pressure or diabetes, taking your medication regularly and as advised will help reduce this risk. If you are unsure, a simple visit to your GP can assess for these often silent conditions.
Don’t Smoke or Stop Smoking
Research has proven that smoking is a strong risk factor for dementia. Ex-smokers can lower their risk to that of non-smokers if they quit.
Certain foods have been linked to brain health, in particular those associated with a Mediterranean diet. This naturally healthy diet, along with exercise, is one of the best ways to maintain a normal weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. The diet is full of the following foods:
- fresh fruit and vegetables high in anti-oxidants
- whole grains
- omega 3 fatty acids that are associated with oily fish, olive oil.
Nuts, seeds, beans, fresh fruits and vegetables are all linked to improved blood vessel health. In comparison, research has shown that diets containing a high intake of saturated fat or trans fats have been linked with greater rates of dementia. LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) is linked to the formation of the plaques that are found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s dementia and also to vascular disease that causes strokes.
Moderate Alcohol Consumption
When it comes to alcohol, be mindful of how much your drink. A maximum of one unit of red wine per day may increase good cholesterol HDL and lower insulin resistance, both which has been linked to lowering risk of dementia.
However, it should be noted that significant alcohol use, especially that above recommended guidelines is a known risk factor for brain disease. There are 1.4 million people in Ireland who are considered to drink alcohol at harmful levels for health.
Using antioxidants for example vitamin E and omega 3 fatty acids may well be beneficial for brain health. However, there is isn't enough research as yet to prove that supplements alone will help with the prevention of cognitive decline.
It's best to include foods rich in these nutrients in your diet and supplement as and when is required for example at times when there's extra demand on our systems or we're not eating as well as we should.
Pursue Ongoing Education
The brain is constantly evolving. We never lose the ability to learn and this can be very beneficial when it comes to memory decline. Challenge yourself to learn new things. Make education a life-long passion. Study a new language, hobby or skill. Read. Try brain games like crosswords or Sudoku to pass time. Keep the brain active not subdued and passive with screens.
Keep Socially Active
We are social animals; it's one of the reasons our brains need to be big in the first place. Maintaining existing friendships, relationships and building new ones challenges parts of our brains associated with emotion, speech and memory. Changing our environment, going out to the cinema, for coffee or to a class are simple steps to keeping all of our brain healthy and active.
If you or a loved one has any concerns about memory, your GP or health professional can provide reassurance, support and simple memory testing or review your risk factors. For more information on Dementia, DSIDC (Dementia Services & Information Services) and the Alzheimer Society of Ireland have excellent information and support.
Please note, this blog is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice.
It’s always best to consult your doctor before taking any new supplements, treatments or remedies if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or on medication.
Checked and updated: 22 August 2021