What is Dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term for a set of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain. Symptoms may include memory loss, and/or difficulties with thinking, problem solving, or language and can lead to changes in mood or behaviour. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common disease that causes dementia but there are other causes, including vascular changes, thyroid gland problems, head trauma, depression, vitamin deficiency, Parkinson’s disease, chronic infections and medications.
Dementia can be progressive if the cause is not treatable, which means the symptoms will gradually worsen as more brain cells become damaged. However, some causes are treatable and dementia is reversible, for example, if it is caused by vitamin deficiencies, medications or thyroid problems. If you are notice signs of dementia it is important to see a health care practitioner to determine and treat the root cause.
Not all dementia can be attributed to genetic predisposition. Much more is due to environmental, physiological and lifestyle factors. If you or a loved one is worried about developing dementia, the good news is that you can do a lot of truly preventative work now to keep your brain healthy.
There are both modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors for dementia. Here we will focus on the ones we can do something about! We have developed 10 strategies to help prevent the development of dementia by working on most of the following modifiable risk factors:
- Poor diet & vitamin deficiencies
- Use of medication that contributes to dementia
- Impaired thyroid function
- Cardiovascular risks (high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes)
- Low physical activity
- Alcohol use
- Head injuries
10 Ways to Help Reduce the Risk of Dementia
1. Minimize use of anticholinergic medication
Anticholinergics work by inhibiting parasympathetic nerve impulses. The parasympathetic nerve system is one of the two main parts of theautomatic nervous system. It manages activities that occur when the body is at rest. The nerves in the parasympathetic system are responsible for involuntary movement of muscles in the gastrointestinal tract, lungs, urinary tract, and other parts of the body.
Many prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids, heart medication,antidepressants and allergy medicines (among others) have moderate to strong anticholinergic activity in the body. A recent large, long-term study has shown that cumulative high-dose anticholinergic use is associated with higher risk of developing dementia. Efforts are being made to help health care providers educate patients about which medications have this effect, how much is dangerous, and how to reduce their use. Don’t stop taking these medications right away if you are currently on them, but be aware and be sure to have a conversation with your doctor about how to limit their usage or change medications .
2. Take vitamin D
Both animal and pre-clinical human studies have shown a correlation between low levels of vitamin D and cognitive decline leading to symptoms of dementia. Supplementing animals with Vitamin D is protective against processes that lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. More large-scale human trials are on the way, but all evidence is pointing to the protective benefit of Vitamin D. Getting out in the sun may not be enough, especially in winter months; taking a supplement is the most effective way to get optimum vitamin D levels for the prevention of dementia.
3. Take fish oil
Decosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is one of the main fats in fish oil. Lower DHA levels are associated with increased cognitive impairment and poorer scores on memory tests in older adults. Studies show that supplementing with fish oil is most effective at the early stages of dementia or even before showing any signs to help prevention. To make sure you are getting the brain-boosting effects, take enough fish oil (commonly a combination of EPA and DHA) to get at least 1000mg of DHA per day. As always, talk with your doctor before starting fish oil as incorrect supplementation can have unwanted effects.
4. Take a B complex vitamin
B vitamins are cofactors in many cellular processes. In this context, they are very helpful in lowering levels of a molecule called homocysteine (HC)- especially vitamin B12, B6 and folate. HC is known to damage the vascular system and having a high level can contribute to risk of heart disease, stroke, or other vascular problems leading to age-related cognitive decline. Something as simple as taking a B complex that includes 500mcg of B12 can effectively lower HC and reduce its damaging effect on the body.
5. Be physically active
Regularly getting your blood moving and your heart pumping is one of the most effective ways to strengthen your vascular system. This is preventative medicine for nearly all chronic health concerns! It doesn’t need to be an intense workout regime; thirty minutes a day of moderate activity like walking, biking, or gardening is enough to see the health benefits of exercise. Increase the benefits even more by doing your exercise outside. Connecting with nature is inherently healing and has been shown to reduce blood pressure and weight faster than exercise indoors.
6. Challenge your brain by trying something new, doing crosswords, word puzzles, or learning a new language
Sound incredible? This really is preventative. Studies show that being bilingual, for example, delays the onset of symptoms of dementia by almost 5 years compared to elderly adults who speak only one language. Another study has shown that doing regular crossword puzzles can delay the onset of memory decline by 2.5 years.
7. Control alcohol intake and quit smoking
The damage done by smoking and excessive alcohol intake is almost unparalleled, and is what leads to many chronic disease processes. The evidence is strong that current daily smokers are at a 45% higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease when compared to non-smokers or former smokers. When looking at risk due to alcohol consumption, it is interesting to note that people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol (1-6 drinks per week) actually have the lowest risk of developing dementia.
Those who don’t drink any alcohol at all have a slightly higher risk than moderate drinkers, and those who drink excessively have the highest risk. These results can be explained by the slight antioxidant power of moderate alcohol intake, mostly from red wine. Moderate drinking is generally considered no more than one drink per day. This does not suggest that you start drinking if you currently don’t in order to reduce your risk, but know that if you do, you don’t need to worry about increasing your risk of dementia if you keep it at a maximum of one per day.
8. Protect against head injuries for your whole life
Wear a helmet on a bike, no ifs, ands, or buts. If you ever suffer a concussion, ensure to not further damage your brain while it is in an already-aggravated state. Be extra careful to protect it and avoid successive concussions.
9. Stay connected socially and interact with others regularly
Having a social network that is reliable is one of the best defenders against many health conditions. Regularly interacting with others can protect against the adverse effects of isolation and loneliness. Combine this with physical activity or nature and get extra benefit!
10. Track your numbers: keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, fasting blood glucose, and weight within recommended ranges
All of these measures of cardiovascular and metabolic health are some of the most important predictors of dementia. These are big categories that affect your risk of not just dementia, but heart disease, stroke, and other diseases, so it really is in your best interest to control these parameters of your health. Your metabolism is a part of this too – adults who develop type-2 diabetes in mid-life are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as those who don’t. Tackle these with the help of your health care provider and natural approaches.
These are some of the ways you can help protect yourself and your brain from age-related decline and dementia. Be sure to rule out other health concerns like thyroid dysfunction or depression with a health care provider. While you should consider these suggestions, don’t forget that just having a regular healthy diet with fish, nuts, seeds and leafy greens is very helpful for preventing dementia and for so much more. What’s stopping you from taking care of yourself now so you and your beloved brain can live to a healthy old age? Give yourself some self-care and incorporate these habits today!