With the current state of our knowledge, we cannot cure dementia or prevent it entirely. Age is the number one risk factor for getting dementia and obviously there is nothing one can do to prevent ageing. We also cannot change our genes and some genes have been found to increase the risk of developing dementia. However, the good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to reduce the risk of getting dementia and there are plenty of things you can avoid that have been found to be risk factors for cognitive decline.
Besides risk factors that we cannot influence, like our genes, there are lifestyle factors that everyone has a direct influence on. The changes occurring in the brain with Alzheimer’s disease do not happen overnight. They develop over a long period of time and cardiovascular risk factors like high blood pressure or obesity in midlife can increase the likelihood of getting dementia later in life. It is thus important to start with a healthy lifestyle early. In the following sections I will give some examples of protective factors, i.e. things that you should do for a healthy lifestyle to reduce the risk for getting dementia or delaying its onset.
Protective factors—things to do
Several studies have shown that physical activity is a protective factor against cognitive decline and dementia. A study by Australian researchers in 2008 even found that exercise improves memory function in older people. However, it is important that exercise is done regularly to benefit from it. At least 20–30 minutes per day of aerobic exercise e.g. brisk walking, swimming or cycling is recommended. The underlying mechanisms of how exercise improves cognition and reduces the risk for cognitive decline and dementia are still being investigated. One mechanism is the benefit to cardiovascular health with lowering blood pressure and obesity and increasing the blood flow and level of oxygen in the brain. Other mechanisms include neurogenesis (the development of new neurons in the brain), anti-inflammatory actions of exercise and an increase in certain neurotransmitters. The brain shrinks with increasing age. A research group from the USA have shown that a one year aerobic exercise intervention in older adults without dementia led to a 2% increase in a brain area that is important for memory function (the hippocampus). Consequently, the increased hippocampal volume was associated with better memory performance.
People who engage in mentally challenging activities reduce their risk for dementia. This could be for instance learning a new language or musical instrument, doing a crossword, reading and playing board or card games. Try to include variety in your activities to challenge your brain but choose activities that you enjoy so that it is likely you will keep engaging in them. Interactions with other people are also cognitively stimulating. Participating in social activities like volunteering, attending workshops or courses, playing golf or bowls and going to the theatre are associated with a reduced risk for dementia. A large study conducted in France with more than 5000 older participants without dementia showed that people engaging in stimulating activities at least twice a week cut the risk of developing dementia over a 4-year period in half, compared to people who were less socially active.
Several disorders such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and major depression have been associated with a higher risk for dementia. You can lower your risk of getting dementia when these conditions are being treated. Regular health check-ups help prevent, discover and/or treat disorders that increase the risk of getting dementia.
Some cardiovascular risk factors like high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity can be controlled or modified by a healthy diet. A lower likelihood of dementia, slower cognitive decline and reduced stroke risk are associated with adherence to the so called Mediterranean diet.
This is part of an article written by Dr Simone Reppermund, PhD Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing, (CHeBA), University of New South Wales.
The full article appears in the book “How to stay Healthy, Active and Sharp in Retirement”.
This book is one of five in the 50 Plus Books range. It was written by 15 leading health experts and addresses the major health issues that people in their 50s, 60s and 70s need to consider if they want to have a good quality of life in their later years.
The book is available online at retirementbooks.com.au/shop/self-help/how-to-stay-healthy-active-and-sharp-in-retirement