By Kathy Megyeri
I went through the grocery store check-out line last week only to open my purse and find that I had left my wallet at home, much to the consternation of shoppers behind me and the check-out clerk. I drove back home in fear that dementia had indeed set in. And I’m not alone. Dementia is the most feared condition for people over 50, and in spite of the helpless feeling we get about the condition, Dr. Ellie Caumpre of the Lancet Commission, dedicated to dementia prevention, intervention and care, assures us that we can reduce our risk and help stop it before it starts.
According to the latest analysis, the available evidence points to mid-life (between the ages of 45 and 64) as the most crucial time because beyond 64, the effects of a poor lifestyle build up. And certainly, prevention is a far better option than attempts to cure the condition as there’s so little that can be done once the diagnosis is made. And although I’m far beyond age 64, I’m so aware of the risk factors that I’m determined to control what factors I can.
How can I prevent dementia?
- It is well known that high blood pressure puts one at risk of heart attack, stroke and dementia because it damages the tiny blood vessels which supply the brain. So, if your blood pressure is high in mid-life, research shows that your risk for dementia increases by 60 percent. Changing your lifestyle or taking medication decreases your risk by a third. Thus, I’ve invested in my own home monitoring kit and have my blood pressure checked regularly.
- A major study of 2.3 million people found that diabetes makes you 60 percent more likely to develop any form of dementia. The longer you have Type 2 diabetes and the worse it becomes, your chances increase for dementia. Losing weight and the excess body fat that causes Type 2 diabetes while eating a healthy diet can reduce your risk.
- Be aware of your heart’s condition. If the tiny blood vessels that supply blood to the brain are damaged by heart disease, oxygen and nutrients cannot properly reach the brain cells and they stop working well which leads to dementia. Thus, I’m trying to eat a balanced diet, maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, keep my blood pressure and cholesterol low to keep my heart healthy and protect my memory and thought processes.
- Drinking 2 bottles of wine a week increases dementia by 20 percent. However, those like me who totally abstain have increased risk as well, and the reason isn’t clear. Scientists think that tee-tollers have given up drinking due to health problems (for me it was kidney stones) and it’s those problems rather than abstinence that’s increasing the risk. More research is needed, so go ahead and enjoy a glass or two, but remember that moderation is the key.
- Protect your head. If you ski, bike or ride your Harley or horse, remember that even a mild head injury puts you at risk of dementia later in life. The effects of head injuries in youth build up. Playing football, boxing, rugby or soccer in one’s youth and suffering injuries increase your chances by 80 percent. Wearing a helmet or protective gear is imperative.
- Inhaling wood smoke, traffic exhaust fumes and air pollution have been linked to dementia, so one should be cautious.
- Moderate exercise just once a week even if it’s gardening, exercise class or jogging can protect you by 20 percent. Eating less and exercising more could cut the chances of dementia by 40 percent.
- Most Americans like me fight obesity which means our BMI (body mass index) is over 30 which leads to a 30 percent increased risk of dementia. Even at age 50, losing four and a half pounds or more can improve memory and attention span.
- Smoking creates a huge dementia risk and is responsible for five percent of all cases. Even if you’re over 60, if you can quit for at least four years, you substantially cut the risk over the next eight years. Second-hand smoke or passive smoking is also linked to worsening memory.
- Depression, even sometimes up to 25 years later, has been linked to dementia. But it’s not clear whether it’s an early symptom or that it directly affects the brain. Taking anti-depressants can reduce the build-up of toxic plaques that lead to dementia or delay the onset. The results aren’t definitely in.
- Socializing after age 60 reduces the risk and being married helps. Interestingly, the research concludes that it doesn’t even matter if you particularly like who you’re with or whether the interactions are positive but just being around other humans helps your brain.
- Research tells us that sleep helps the body clear out damaging proteins that lead to dementia. Disturbed sleep leads to brain inflammation which increases protein production. The best amount of sleep is between five to nine hours.
- Significant hearing loss increases one’s risk of developing dementia by 90 percent. Hearing declines with age, but significant hearing loss shrinks the part of the brain associated with memory. Granted, particularly women like me feel the social stigma of wearing hearing aids but I religiously wear mine out of fear for age-related memory loss and studies have found that those already with dementia deteriorate less rapidly if hearing aids are worn which is further proof that it’s never too late to get fitted for them.
- Keeping one’s brain active is a must as studies have shown that those with mentally demanding jobs have fewer cases of dementia and those over 65 who read, travel, learn an instrument, exercise or speak a second language reduced their risk by 30 percent.
- The World Health Organization concludes that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole-grains, beans and olive oil protect against dementia and best of all for thinking and memory are green leafy vegetables. Therefore, meat and saturated fat should be kept to a minimum. Nutritionist Angela Dowden found that participants in her study who ate a Mediterranean diet have 40 percent fewer cases of dementia. That includes non-fatty meat, poultry and fish, but studies of 8,000 adults found no evidence that salmon, mackerel and sardines support brain function or decrease cases of dementia.
The same for coffee, dark chocolate or blueberries. The association between diets high in oily fish and reduced dementia might be due to the fact that those who eat fish-heavy diets are generally healthier. And the effects of taking Omega-3 supplements are minimal, studies found. Vegetables high in potassium are more helpful to restore fluid balance in the blood stream, keeping blood pressure stable. The best 15 dietary habits are:
- Green leafy vegetables
- A vegetable once a day
- Berries twice a week
- Whole grains such as brown rice or pasta three times a week
- Red meat or processed meats less than four times a week
- Fish at least once a week
- Poultry twice a week
- Nuts five times a week
- Fried foods less than once a week
- Mainly olive oil for cooking
- Less than one tablespoon of butter or margarine a day
- Cheese less than once a week
- Sugary foods, desserts and pastries less than five times a week
- Drink one glass of wine or other alcohol a day
Thus, there’s no magic nutritional bullet or way to beat dementia, but the Mediterranean diet of nuts, olive oil, fruits, vegetables and whole grains like brown rice and whole-meal bread have been proven to have more impact on brain health than even a traditional weight loss diet. The healthy fats found in such a diet reduce the inflammatory molecules in the brain that affect our ability to process information. Eating such food fills one up and helps portion control to reduce obesity. Of course, too much salt in the blood stream leads to excess fluid which puts a strain on blood vessels.
All of these tips show that, indeed, we can help to delay or at least do our utmost to avoid dementia so they are certainly worth trying. Too many of us know the heartbreak of such a dreaded disease and that alone should provide us with some motivation to control what we can.