What is Dementia?
Dementia or cognitive decline is a common condition in Ireland with an estimated 35,000 people effected. It is a problem that is increasing with our aging population. There are many different forms of dementia but Alzheimer’s and microvascular dementia (related to ‘mini strokes’ in the brain) are the most common.
Is this an inevitable process in certain susceptible people or are their things we can do to help prevent it or to keep our brains active and healthy as we age?
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.
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.
There is much research ongoing in this area but there seems to be certain simple things that have been well established to be good for our brain health. As some forms of dementia are related to blood vessel disease like mini strokes it makes sense that the same general healthy living that helps avoid heart disease are likely to improve brain health.
What can I do to Reduce the Risk of Dementia?
Maintain a Healthy Weight as we are set to become the most obese nation in Europe, with an aging population, this 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 Research has shown that keeping physically active, with regular exercise 3 or more times/week is linked to lower 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 this to be a strong risk factor for dementia. Ex-smokers can lower their risk to that of non-smokers if they quit.
Eat Well Foods that have been linked to brain health are mostly 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 back bone of this diet is the inclusion of lots of fresh fruit and vegetables high in anti-oxidants, whole grains, nuts, seeds, pulses and 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 e.g. maximum one unit of red wine/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.
Antioxidants Using antioxidants (e.g. Vitamin E) and omega 3 fatty acids may well be beneficial for brain health but there is yet to be enough randomised, placebo-controlled research to prove that supplements alone will help prevention of cognitive decline – as with most things a good natural dietary source of these components supplemented when required, at times when we may not eat as well or have extra demand on the system, is likely to be the best approach.
Pursue Ongoing Education as mentioned the brain is constantly evolving. We never lose the ability to learn and this is shown to be protective against 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 by screens.
Keep Socially Active We are social animals; it is 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 of your risk factors. This helpful summary PDF ( http://dementia.ie/images/uploads/site-images/Brain_Health_download1.pdf) on preventative measures can be found at www.dementia.ie and the Alzheimer Society of Ireland also have an excellent website for further information and support www.alzheimer.ie .