So often women will tell me about a memory issue they’ve recently experienced – forgetting what they went into a room for, or not being able to come up with the right word – and share how terrified they are that it could be early signs of dementia. When there’s a history in their family, this fear is even greater. They’re afraid that their fate is sealed and there’s nothing they can do about it.
It’s hard to think that there might come a time when you struggle to carry out the tasks of daily living, isn’t it? No one wants to imagine a day when they don’t remember how to do things that come so naturally now.
I totally understand the fear, but I’m quick to reassure these women that there is plenty they can do to protect their cognitive health. Even with a family history that might place you at higher risk, there’s no certainty that you will end up developing serious dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Lifestyle choices make a big difference, and there are many factors at play – many of which you can control.
Let’s take a look at what dementia is, risk factors for developing dementia, and seven healthy ways to decrease your risk and keep your mind strong.
What is Dementia?
Dementia isn’t a specific disease, but rather a term used to describe a set of symptoms. Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative brain disease, is the most common form of dementia.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 5.8 million people in the US are living with Alzheimer’s disease, with the number projected to more than double to 14 million by the year 2050.
One in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. Think about that for a minute — one third of all seniors develops some kind of dementia in their lifetime. There are an estimated 16 million people who are providing unpaid care to these seniors.
The statistics are sobering aren’t they? When you think about these figures, it can seem like dementia is an inevitable reality for many of us. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Early diagnosis can make a big difference, as can a better awareness of prevention methods.
How Can I Recognize the Signs of Dementia?
Regular cognitive screenings can help you recognize dementia early, in yourself or a loved one. While changes to memory and cognitive abilities occur as you age, if it’s impacting daily life, there’s something more going on.
Some of the biggest signs of developing dementia include significant memory loss and difficulty retaining new information (such as names or appointment times); difficulty in planning, concentrating, or completing familiar tasks; confusion about time or place; trouble with words in writing or while speaking; difficulty with visual images or spatial relationships; frequently losing things; exhibiting poor judgement; withdrawing from social events and activities; and personality or mood changes. Sounds a bit like perimenopause for some I am sure, but it is not the same I assure you.
While some of these things may happen on occasion to anyone, especially in times of stress, when they have a noticeable impact on daily functioning, it’s time to talk to a trusted health care professional.
What Are the Risk Factors for Dementia?
While there are no definitive answers to the question of what causes Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia, several risk factors have been identified. Some of these things – like genetic predisposition – cannot be changed. But you do have control over many of the risk factors that have been identified. And please remember our genes are NOT our destiny.
Some of the most common risk factors identified include age and genetics; medical conditions such as viruses, Lyme disease, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease; and lifestyle choices. It’s unlikely that any one risk factor alone will cause dementia, but a combination of several can dramatically increase your risk of cognitive decline.
While you can’t change how old you are, or the genes you were born with, you can manage your health and control your lifestyle choices. I’ll talk about that in a minute, when I get to those tips I promised you.
It’s important to note that some factors seem more important at different times in your life – though information is constantly changing and more research is necessary. For instance, it has long been thought that continuing education beyond the age of 16 could reduce risk of dementia. But a new study published in February 2019 surprised researchers by finding that education level did not delay onset of dementia, or impact rate of decline.
The biggest risk factor is something we can’t do anything about; aging. The risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia doubles every five years over the age of 65! But although you can’t stop the aging process itself, you can control a lot of the factors associated with aging, including high blood pressure, risk of cardiovascular disease, changes to immune system functioning, and fluctuating hormone levels, and toxic exposures.
Cardiovascular disease and uncontrolled Type 2 diabetes can increase risk of dementia by up to two times. Other medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity also increase risk of dementia. People who have experienced periods of depression also seem to develop dementia at increased rates. All of these health conditions can be hugely impacted by lifestyle changes, making them more avoidable risk factors.
Speaking of lifestyle, there is a great deal of evidence that certain unhealthy lifestyle choices can increase the risk of dementia. These include physical inactivity, smoking, unhealthy diet, and excessive consumption of alcohol. All of these are things you have personal control over, no matter how difficult that might seem. Let’s take a look at seven great ways to develop healthier lifestyle habits to help keep your mind sharp.
7 Healthy Habits That Can Reduce Risk of Dementia
There is so much research around dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and we learn new things every day. Many of the findings around lifestyle choices and prevention of cognitive decline show great promise. And even without conclusive proof that these healthy lifestyle changes will ward off dementia, they’ll likely improve your health in many ways. There’s nothing to be lost by trying these strategies, and there’s a lot to gain!
1. Train Your Brain
Although higher education level was not shown to delay onset of dementia or slow decline, there’s still a lot of research that suggests that engaging in stimulating cognitive tasks can boost cognitive functioning as you age. It’s almost like the old “use it or lose it” expression. The less stimulation you provide your brain, the more difficult tasks become. Try puzzles, sudoku, crosswords, reading challenging material, playing cards or strategic board games. Make sure you’re finding things you enjoy, as you’re much more likely to continue doing them!
2. Take Care of Your Heart
Damaged blood vessels anywhere in your body can cause damage to the blood vessels in your brain. When this happens, your brain cells aren’t getting the vital food and oxygen they require. Paying attention to cardiovascular health also helps protect your brain. If you smoke, quit. Do all you can to keep blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and body weight in the healthy range. Remember you have SO much control to change things and then to change your health.
3. Get Plenty of Exercise
Physical activity might be one of the best ways to decrease risk of dementia. Research has shown that increasing blood and oxygen flow to the brain may have a direct beneficial impact on brain cells. Exercising five times a week at a moderate level of exertion is best. You want to elevate your heart rate and breathe a little heavier to get the most benefit. So many things count as exercise, so don’t worry if you hate going to the gym. Try a brisk walk, snowshoeing, bicycling, swimming, dancing, or even just walking up and down stairs! The main thing is to keep yourself moving. Remember the interval training I always talk about, this is the perfect time to start if you do not have an exercise regime.
4. Eat Well
Eating right impacts heart health in positive ways, which as I’ve said also impacts brain health. Nutrition is very personal; what works for one person may have the exact opposite effect for someone else. But there are some diets that show promise in decreasing risk of cognitive decline, including the Ketogenic diet and a Paleo diet.
Evidence suggests that a heart healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, can also protect the brain. Observational studies indicate that the MIND diet, a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the Diet for High Blood Pressure (DASH) could reduce risk of Alzheimer’s by more than 50%!, as well as slowing cognitive decline and improving verbal memory.
Heart healthy diets are high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, nuts, and other healthy fats. Healthy fats are important because they contain vital Omega-3s which have been shown to improve cognitive functioning.
Just as importantly, these diets avoid or eliminate foods that can negatively impact health, such as sugar, processed foods, fried foods, and unhealthy oils.
Identifying foods you are sensitive to can help reduce inflammation, which can have a big impact on the brain. Drinking alcohol in moderation (limiting to one drink per day) is also important..
5. Stay Connected
Relationships really do matter, and social isolation can be a risk factor for dementia. Evidence is beginning to show how staying engaged in social activity and having the support of others can reduce risk of dementia, as well as increasing resilience and keeping depression at bay. One recent longitudinal study found that high social engagement may delay or prevent dementia.
Visit family and friends as often as you can, travel, or get involved in community service. You can also connect with others through mutual interests – join a book club, a knitting group, a place of worship, or a service club.
6. Calm Your Mind
Stress has a huge impact on so many aspects of your health – including cognitive functioning! Managing stress effectively also improves heart function, so it makes sense that lowering stress levels might decrease risk of dementia. Develop regular practices to help you de-stress, such as meditation, deep breathing, guided imagery, yoga, massage, journaling, prayer, or anything that allows you to stop, slow down, and appreciate the moment.
7. Be Sure You Get Enough Quality Sleep
The connection between sleep and dementia is complicated. Research hasn’t yet determined if lack of sleep increases risk of dementia or vice versa. It could be both…or neither! One small study published in 2017 followed 321 subjects for as long as 19 years, and found that every minute less of REM sleep was associated with about a 9 percent increase in risk of dementia. While much more research is needed to establish a definite connection, good sleep habits are essential to health. And I know my head is much more clear when I get a good night’s sleep! Set a regular routine to help yourself wind down at night, and strive to sleep for at least 7 hours each night.
Healthy Lifestyle, Healthy Mind!
With dementia on the rise, it’s essential that we all pay attention to the factors that can impact cognitive decline. Failing cognitive abilities are NOT a natural product of aging. You have the power to reduce your risk by swapping bad habits for healthy habits. When you do, you’ll give yourself the best chance at a sharp mind for many years to come!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD