Dodging Dementia

Dementia prevention through lifestyle choices

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

With an aging population and dementia rates expected to triple by 2050, the decline of cognitive ability with age is affecting more and more people. This estimate, as reported by Alzheimer’s Disease International and the World Health Organization highlights the need for the public to get educated about the disease - and how to prevent it.

While more research is needed to determine conclusively the causes of dementia, taking steps now could help your odds against the disease and, at the very least, increase your overall well-being.

The Big Three: Physical Risk Factors You Can Choose

Heredity certainly plays a part in mental cognition and decay and, unfortunately, you can’t change your genes. However, there are some factors under your control that can contribute to decreasing your likelihood for dementia.

In a report presented jointly by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Alzheimer’s Association, “The Healthy Brain Initiative: A National Public Health Road Map to Maintaining Cognitive Health,” three major factors were identified with maintaining mental wellbeing: weight, tobacco use and exercise.

Controlling Weight and Cardiovascular Health
Preventing or controlling factors like cholesterol, diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure through diet and exercise are not only good for your physical health, but your mental health too. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, some autopsy studies have estimated that 80 percent of Alzheimer’s patients also have cardiovascular disease.

Diet can be a huge contributing factor to cardiovascular health, and the Mayo Clinic reports “a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids, commonly found in certain fish and nuts, can have a protective effect and decrease your risk of developing dementia”

Just Say No to Cigarettes
By preventing tobacco use or quitting if you are already a smoker, you are once again bettering both your physical and mental abilities.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Although some studies indicate that only current smoking increases dementia risk, at least one large study found that heavy smoking (more than two packs a day) in midlife more than doubles your risk, even two decades later.”

Stay Physically Active
Staying physically active as you age is a great way to prevent a host of diseases and issues commonly associating with aging, and dementia is no different.

The Alzheimer’s Association reports that “some evidence suggests exercise may directly benefit brain cells by increasing blood and oxygen flow. Even stronger evidence suggests exercise may protect brain health through its proven benefits to the cardiovascular system.”

The potential connections between physical activity and vascular fitness, and vascular fitness and cognitive health simply provide another reason to make exercise a habit.

More Ways to Stack the Odds in Your Favor

Various additional factors are also associated with lower rates of dementia. If you can give them a shot and potentially lower the risk, why not give it a try?

Maintain an Active Mind
Keeping your mind intellectually active could potentially help prevent or slow cognitive decline. The Mayo Clinic proposes that this is because an active mind maybe be better equipped to compensate for the changes that occur when dementia strikes.

Activities to stimulate the brain could include things like learning a new language, painting, playing with puzzles or word games or even reading this article. This has become a marketable area as technology has advanced, and now a variety of apps and computer games aimed at improving memory and mental cognition are available.

Be a Social Butterfly
If you play mentally stimulating games with others, you are doubling up on your dementia-fighting strategies. Keeping your mind socially active is also thought to improve your odds against cognitive deterioration.

The Alzheimer’s Association expresses that though the reason for the connection is still being researched, it might be a result of social stimulation strengthening and protecting the brain. 

Travel, keeping up with old friendships, talking often to family members and attending theater performances could all be ways to maintain a socially active lifestyle.

Educate Yourself
According to the Mayo Clinic, “People who've spent more time in formal education appear to have a lower incidence of mental decline, even when they have brain abnormalities.”

This may be due to education creating a powerful nerve cell network in your brain. This network could potentially protect against or compensate for the cell damage caused when Alzheimer’s strikes.

Finishing or continuing your college education, taking a community class or enrolling in an online course could not only teach you something new, it might protect your brain. Several nationally recognized universities now offer free online courses to the public on a variety of topics. Find one that interests you and sign up!

B Vitamins Offer New Hope

Along with lifestyle choices, effective new drug treatments are also being explored. Some are hoping that compounds in common vitamins might hold the key to slowing or preventing dementia.

High blood levels of homocysteine, an amino acid, have been associated with cognitive decline. Though more research is needed, the Mayo Clinic reports that early studies have shown “high doses of three B vitamins — folic acid, B-6 and B-12 — help lower homocysteine levels and appear to slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease.”

In one 2011 study funded by the National Institute on Aging, 121 older subjects were followed for several years and measured for vitamin B-12 levels. Results of neuropsychological tests examining five different cognitive areas and brain MRIs were also studied.

Results showed that signs of B-12 presence in the body were related with cognitive function, but more research needs to be done to show causation. The authors concluded that “vitamin B-12 status may affect the brain through multiple mechanisms.”

Though researchers are still in the process of understanding the connection of B vitamins, homocysteine levels and dementia, there is potential for this treatment to motivate the next wave of dementia research and prevention. For now, these early studies provide even more reason to eat a balanced diet full of vitamins and nutrients.

It may be years before we fully understand all of the causes and intricacies of dementia. However, if we can potentially fight the odds through methods that have countless additional benefits - methods like exercise, weight loss, cutting out the cigarettes and maintaining healthy relationships and an active social life - it is hard to see why we shouldn’t give it a try.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 22, 2012