Scientists used to believe that Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia were predetermined and, other than alcoholic dementia, there was nothing we could do to prevent it. We now know that this is only partially true. We no longer have to wait to be victimised by dementia. There are things we can do to minimise the risk. Many of these are simple, and we can be proactive in instituting these strategies. Many doctors in the field recognise that each person has an important role to play in their mental health.
Here are three things that you can do immediately.
The longest study ever done relating to dementia was by the University of Cardiff in which over 2000 men were followed for 35 years. What they found was that the most significant influence on reducing dementia was exercise; either walking 3 kilometres a day or cycling 16 kilometres a day. These are not excessive numbers; most people can do this. Other influences such as diet and alcohol reduction were factors, but exercise came out on top.
This makes sense because dementia occurs when the health of the brain tissues deteriorate whether due to plaques that occur in the blood vessels or due to damage of nerve cells in the brain. We know that children who exercise score better on school exams. The stagnation of the sedentary lifestyle today that so many lead is a detriment to brain health.
Unless we are in a wheelchair, we can all walk. The secret is to walk vigorously. Push the body a little bit more; it is not only good for your brain, but it will also enhance your physical fitness.
Travel is an activity that has a positive impact on brain health. It stirs up neuroplastic changes in the brain – neuroplasticity being the process whereby new nerve connections generate within the brain. When we travel, we also do much walking, and that is a bonus.
Perhaps the main reason travel is so important to brain health is that it takes us out of our normal environment, and we have to process new information. Experiencing different countries and cultures is a learning experience. Visiting the great museums, art galleries and cathedrals of the world provides us with new information and we get to appreciate the richness of humanity. We also learn about the not so pleasant aspects of humanity. For instance, when we were in the Italian city of Trieste, we were surprised to find that there had been a concentration camp in the city during World War II. Most people are unaware of that fact. Today it is a museum that has restored the site for the historical record. It was a true learning experience.
We humans are geared towards goal-setting. Our brains are wired this way and for each new goal that set, we create new sets of nerves that fire together. Setting new and different goals keeps our brains stimulated, and it creates a sense of purpose and achievement.
When we set goals, we trigger our brains to fire neurons in a new way that causes the brain to change. We may set goals such as learning Italian, so we become fluent in three years to converse on a trip to Italy. We might set a goal of cycling 200 kilometres a week in a year’s time, or we may have a goal of creating a viable new business within two years. All these goals need to be set with time limits so that it creates some sense of urgency. Some goals may be more subtle, but no less important such as mentoring a certain number of teenagers within a given time span.
All these goals lead us to a purpose-driven life. Patrick Hill of Carleton University in Canada found in a 14-year study that having a purpose was a predictor of a longer life. Another study indicated that having a life purpose resulted in a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s.
The bottom line is if you do not have a purpose, look for one and set goals to achieve it.
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