This piece may at first appear scary and overwhelming, but the aim is to equip you with all the knowledge you need to help you and your loved ones reduce your risks of developing dementia or, if you already have it, to slow its progression.
You may think that you’re too young to have to worry about developing dementia. However, research suggests that the changes in your brain that cause Alzheimer’s can occur up to 20 years before you start displaying symptoms.
So there’s no better day than today to start making positive steps to improve your brain health.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is the umbrella term used to group progressive neurological diseases, of which there are over 200. There are currently over 850,000 people in the UK living with dementia, but this the number expected to rise to 1 million in 2021. This is a direct result of the diagnosis rates improving and life expectancy increasing.
Some of the most well-known forms of dementia are Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, with 50-70% of dementia cases caused by Alzheimer’s .
What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, with the symptoms typically appearing in peoples’ mid-60s. However, while rare, early-onset Alzheimer’s can develop from the age of 30. The symptoms of Alzheimer’s are usually mild at first, and gradually worsen over time.
Maintaining a healthy brain is important at all stages of life, since it is the most vital organ you have; you literally cannot live without it.
It has been found that there are 6 pillars for a brain-healthy lifestyle:
- Physical exercise increases blood flow to the brain and stimulates chemicals in the brain that boost your thinking and mood.
- Healthy diet is important for brain health, with a Mediterranean diet found to prevent and/or slow the development of dementia. Additionally, green tea has been found to enhance memory and slow brain aging
- Medical health is an important dementia risk factor since depression, smoking, diabetes and many other health conditions increase your risk of developing dementia.
- Sleep and relaxation have an impact on your likelihood of developing dementia. It has been found that both interrupted sleep and too much sleep (over 9 hours) can increase your risk. Relaxation is also important because chronic stress and anxiety can damage the areas of the brain which are responsible for your emotional responses, thinking and memory.
- Mental fitness is important for brain health because exercising your brain promotes the growth of new brain cells and improves your brain’s functioning.
- Social interaction is key for maintaining a good memory; social interaction has been found to slow the rate of memory decline.
Reducing your risk
There are several ways that you can reduce your risk of dementia and improve your brain function. Many involve only small lifestyle alterations.
Ways to reduce your risk:
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Exercise regularly
- Keep alcohol to a minimum (no more than 14 units a week)
- Don’t smoke (smoking narrows the arteries, raising blood pressure and causing cardiovascular disease)
- Maintain a healthy blood pressure level
Exercise for reducing dementia risk
It is recommended that you exercise for 150 minutes a week, but it has been found that positive effects of exercise are not limited to physical fitness. The World Health Organization (WHO) has found that individuals aged 65 and above who engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise every week are better able to keep Alzheimer’s at bay. This is not only because of its positive impact on the brain, but also the heart; exercise reduces the risk of strokes and heart attacks, which can cause dementia.
In fact, regular exercise has been found to reduce the risk of developing dementia by around 30%. For Alzheimer’s disease specifically, the risk is reduced by 45%. Exercise has also been found to improve the memory, judgement and thinking skills (cognitive function) for people with mild Alzheimer’s disease. This in turn can slow the progress of the disease. This is because physical activity increases the production of chemicals that protect the brain and increases blood flow.
Exercise for improving cognitive function
Seniors who do exercise (of any type) demonstrated better cognitive function than those who don’t exercise at all. However, for peak cognitive function, it has been found that aerobic exercise (e.g. running, swimming and dancing) is most effective. It was found that cognitive function in elderly adults who engaged only in aerobic exercise was three times better than that of seniors who did a combination of aerobic exercise and muscle-strengthening exercises.
Health checks can help to identify the early signs of dementia and health problems that can increase dementia risk.
There are several symptoms that could be an indication of dementia. If you notice any of the below symptoms you should speak to a medical professional who will be able to diagnose you and, if you do in fact have dementia, help to slow its progression.
- Memory loss
- Difficulty planning or solving problems
- Difficulty doing familiar tasks
- Being confused about time or place
- Challenges understanding visual information
- Problems speaking or writing
- Misplacing things
- Poor judgment or decision-making
- Withdrawal from socialising
- Changes in personality or mood
If you do get diagnosed don’t worry because there are plenty of ways that you can slow its progression.