Do you have a parent with dementia? Have you wondered about your own risk level of developing a dementia? Well I have. What I’ve learned is that there are certain risk factors I can do nothing about and others that I can change. In fact researchers have investigated lifestyle changes that can minimize your risks and lower your chances of developing dementia.
What is dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe signs and symptoms your parent may be experiencing and/or that you are observing in them. Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning (thinking, remembering, and reasoning) and the loss of behavioural abilities. These functions include memory, language skills, visual perception, problem solving, self-management, the ability to focus and pay attention, personality changes, and ability to control emotions and moods. As you can see, the list is long, and the loss of these functions interferes with your parent’s daily life, activities and relationships.
Risk factors are characteristics of your lifestyle, environment, and genetic background that increase the likelihood of getting a disease. Risk factors, on their own, are not causes of a disease. Rather, risk factors represent an increased chance, but not a certainty, that dementia will develop.
There are risk factors that are impossible to change, and for dementia, these include age, gender and genetics. The good news is there are risk factors that you can change! The best way to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia is to lead a healthy lifestyle that takes care of both your body and your brain.
What are some prevention strategies?
Studies continue to show a connection between a healthy living strategy and the reduced risk of dementia. Here’s what you can try:
Exercise your brain
Give your brain a workout everyday. People who actively use their brains throughout their life may be more protected against brain cell damage. It can be as simple as dialing a phone number or brushing your teeth with your less dominant hand. Challenging your mind can be fun too. Play games, learn a new language, pick up playing an instrument, do jumble puzzles – all ways to keep your brain active.
Move it! Move it! Move it!
Physical activity pumps blood to the brain, which nourishes the cells with nutrients and oxygen, and may even encourage new cells. Think of moving as “activity” not “exercise” and something you enjoy like gardening, dancing, a leisurely swim, a nature walk. Investigations show that almost any kind physical activity (not just the dreaded gym workout) can help keep your body and your brain healthy. Start where you can with achievable goals. Consider adding a bit of physical activity into your daily routine. Choose a walk to the store rather than driving the car or take the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator for one or two floors.
What’s good for the heart is good for the brain
Many of the same strategies to reduce heart disease can also benefit your brain. Track your numbers: keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and weight within normal ranges
It is important to follow your health practitioner’s recommendations to regulate high blood pressure and high cholesterol, monitor diabetes and manage any weight issues.
Smokers are 45% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease compared to non-smokers or ex-smokers. It is known that smoking also increases the risk of vascular problems, which are also risk factors for dementia. Avoid smoking or quit. If you smoke, talk to your health practitioner about smoking cessation programs and medications
A drink here and there won’t hurt
People who drink alcohol excessively have the highest risk of dementia compared to people who drink moderately or not at all. Higher levels of alcohol over a long period of time can increase a person’s risk of developing dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia or alcohol related dementia.
Consider no more than two drinks per day, with a maximum of 10 drinks per week for women and no more than three drinks per day, with a maximum of 15 drinks per week for the men. Cheers!
Getting your ZZZZZZ’s!
Being sleep-deprived can significantly impair your memory, mood and function. Addressing your sleep concerns could be a fairly simple way to improve your brain health. Consider a sleep clinic referral for an assessment if sleeping is a concern (e.g. sleep apnea, wake sleep cycle disruptions)
So nice to meet you!
Joining a service club, volunteering, or meeting new people who share a common interest are great opportunities to stay socially connected. Keep up with friends and family–go ahead and visit, call or text or use email or Facebook. Social interaction may also help slow down the progression of the dementia.
OW, I really hurt my head!
People who experience severe or repeated head injuries are at increased risk of developing dementia (e.g. pro athletes in boxing, football or hockey). So of course, protect your head by wearing a helmet when riding a bicycle, skiing, skateboarding, or playing sports. Falls can also cause brain and head injuries. In the home, consider installing handrails and/or grab bars to lower risks of falls. When travelling in your car, not only is it a good practice to wear your seat belt, it is the law.
OK…Test my stress
You can take steps to reduce the harmful effects of stress on your body and mind. The key is to find a variety of techniques that work for you such as prayer and meditation, deep breathing, massage, or physical exercise. Stress could play a role in dementia development but is unlikely to be the only factor that causes the condition. Endeavour to take personal time for yourself and find a balance that limits stress.
You are what you eat
Healthy food choices not only improve your general health, in the long-term nutritious food helps maintain brain function and slows memory decline. Enjoy a variety of foods in many different colours. Choose food options that are lower in added sugars, saturated fats and salt. The MIND diet combines the Mediterranean and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets and it is high in leafy greens, vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish and olive oil. Mmmmm, why not whip up this delicious Elizz recipe.
Debunking the aluminum myth
A popular theory in 1970’s said that drinking from aluminum cans, cooking in aluminum pots and pans, or using aluminum-containing antiperspirants may be linked to dementia. My Mom threw out all her aluminum cookware when this theory first surfaced. Use of aluminum in pots and pans only contributes to a very small percentage of the average person’s intake of aluminum. Current research provides no convincing evidence that exposure to trace elements of aluminum is connected to the development of dementia. The aluminum theory can now be laid to rest.
In a nutshell
Many of these well-researched steps to reduce your risk of developing dementia are basically suggestions for overall healthy living. Is there a lifestyle strategy here that you are interested in trying?