Can Lifestyle Changes Really Reduce Dementia Risk?
We forget a co-worker’s name or a friend’s address and we worry. We misplace our keys and a nagging doubt badgers us. And when we sit down to write a report, we realize neither the words nor the calculations come as easily as they once did.
Hardly anyone of a certain age has been immune to a moment of forgetfulness, and it’s not unusual to be troubled by it. After all, dementia is a disease that afflicts 47 million people globally — and so far a cure has proven frustratingly elusive.
Experts say as many as 131 million people could be living with dementia by 2050.
Yet a growing body of research shows that we can do something to delay and prevent the condition.
The latest is an international study recently published in the journal The Lancet and presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London. The report concludes that lifestyle factors can influence an individual’s dementia risk.
“The research has been building with a number of studies that show certain behaviors in association with those who develop dementia,” said Dr. Barry Baumel, a dementia and memory disorder expert at the University of Miami Health System. “So we now know that there are several things that might help prevent it.”
The Lancet study reports that addressing lifestyle factors could help prevent at least one-third of the world’s dementia cases, a promising solution for researchers, a segment of the medical community that hasn’t developed a drug to delay or effectively treat the condition. What’s more, the laundry list of preventive measures can be easily described (and followed): Live a healthy lifestyle.
Here’s a primer:
- Eat well. Diet affects brain health. Vegetables, berries, nuts, whole grains — what nutritionists have long touted — are good for you. Processed foods and artery-clogging trans-fat aren’t. “What’s good for the brain is good for the heart and what is good for the heart is good for the brain,” said Baumel, who is also an assistant professor of neurology and interim chief of the Cognitive Disorder Division. Baumel further notes that elderly who are cognitively healthy also are usually thin. So watch your weight.
- Stay physically active. “Exercise stimulates the brain just as it stimulates other parts of your body,” Baumel added. Physical activity can also help control weight and blood pressure, too, which can negatively influence brain health. Older people with type 2 diabetes, for instance, have a higher risk of dementia.
- Stay socially and intellectually engaged. “We’re talking about purposeful interaction, not superficial,” Baumel explained. “Discuss the issues of life, the issues that interest you. Studies have shown that people who have a purpose in life do better cognitively.”
- Never stop learning. The process of acquiring a skill — learning how to speak a new language, say, or learning to play a musical instrument — promotes the creation of new brain cells, keeping thought processes nimble. This ability to grow new brain cells is called neurogenesis and exercise, a proper diet and lifelong learning help our brain regenerate itself. What’s more, educated people have a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s, Baumel points out, and those who do develop the condition can dip into a larger “brain reserve” to compensate for the memory-stealing effects of the disease. “The bigger the brain,” Baumel adds, “the better the brain, and the brain gets bigger through learning.”
- Get plenty of sleep. The brain has a waste disposal system that dumps out and recycles your brain’s toxins, and two-thirds of the action happens while you sleep. One protein recycled during sleep is amyloid plaque, which marks the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, and some researchers have noted a correlation between sleep deprivation and the disease. Animal studies also have shown that chronic sleep deprivation can lead to irreversible brain damage.
- Avoid stress. Learn how to deal with anxiety. And manage depression. These conditions “are very, very bad for your brain,” Baumel added. Repeated studies demonstrate that clinical depression and anxiety disorders, like mental illness and drug abuse, cause devastating changes in key areas of the brain. Even common depression is linked to abnormalities in centers of the brain used for memory, planning, and conflict resolution.
Finally, one word of caution: Doing all this is no guarantee a person won’t suffer from dementia. But Baumel encourages his patients to look at their healthful efforts in this way: “While no one thing will work alone, any little bit will help and it will help not only your brain but also the rest of you.”
In Their Words
Ana Veciana-Suarez, Guest Contributor
Ana is a regular contributor for the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author, who has worked at The Miami Herald, The Miami News and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at anavecianasuarez.com or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.