Dementia can be a looming fear for many people as they grow older. It threatens to destroy your memories and you may fear being dependent on loved ones you no longer recognize.
Caring for a family member with dementia is frustrating and heartbreaking. Dementia caregivers may often ask themselves “How can I prevent myself from getting dementia?”
The World Health Organization estimates 35.6 million people are living with dementia. This number is projected to double by 2030 and by 2050 there could possibly be over 106.9 million people will dementia.
Is dementia a ticking time bomb just waiting for you as you grow older? Not necessarily. As of now, there is no proven way to prevent dementia. Certain risk factors like age and genetics can’t be changed, but research continues to find new methods that show promise in reducing the risk of dementia. The strategies below may reduce your risk of dementia, but they can also be key reminders of how to enjoy your daily activities and live a healthy life.
What is Dementia?
The National Institute on Aging defines dementia as a loss of cognitive functioning. Day-to-day life is disrupted by changes in one's ability to:
- Make choices
- Remember details
- Communicate clearly
- Recognize common objects
- Solve problems
- Complete the steps of a daily activity
- Pay attention
- Control emotions
Dementia is not an all or nothing diagnosis. Some people experience only a mild form of dementia, where there are only a few signs of a loss of function. Other people are affected severely and need 24/7 caregiving. Some people may also experience changes to their personalities. A person who was once calm and reserved might become angry and agitated.
Dementia is a result of the neurons in your brain slowing down, losing connections with other brain cells and eventually dying. Neurons are the building blocks of your brain and nervous system. Every message that comes into your brain travels through your neurons. Messages like, “I see that face. I recognize that face. That is my daughter. She is 58. I asked her to pick up my prescription yesterday," or “I am hungry. I need to get something to eat. I will open the refrigerator. I will use my hand to grab a yogurt” are processed through neurons.
These messages fly back and forth from your brain to your body. This happens millions of times in a day without you being aware of what is happening until your neurons aren’t working properly anymore. It is normal to lose some neurons as you age, but people with dementia lose enough that it causes a breakdown in the system enough to affect daily life.
Common types of dementia include:
- Alzheimer’s disease. This is caused by plagues and tangles developing in the brain that interfere with normal brain functioning,
- Lewy body dementia. This is caused by abnormal deposits of the protein alpha-synuclein (Lewy bodies) in the brain.
- Frontotemporal disorder. This is caused when the brain continually loses nerve cells in the frontal lobes or temporal lobes, leading to loss of function in those areas.
- Vascular dementia. This is caused by restricted blood flow to the brain because of issues in the body’s circulatory system.
How to Prevent Dementia – 10 Strategies to Reduce Your Risk
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are ways to decrease your risk of dementia. Studies are showing us that healthy lifestyle choices can prevent many forms of cancer, diabetes and heart disease. A healthy lifestyle can also improve your cognitive function. While there is no definitive way to prevent dementia, these 10 healthy lifestyle strategies may help you reduce your risk.
1. Give your brain sleep.
A study by Maiken Nedergaard found that sleep is when your brain cleans up. During sleep, your brain clears amyloid-beta protein, which contributes to the plaque that is often found in the brains of people with dementia. Without adequate amounts of sleep, your brain may start to suffer from toxic buildup.
Action Strategy: Make a date with sleep. Figure out when your best sleep hours are in a 24-hour period and commit to being in bed for those times. Get yourself ready for sleep an hour before you meet your pillow. Promote high-quality sleep by:
- Turning off electronics
- Having a relaxing shower or bath
- Practicing meditation or light reading
2. Feed your brain.
Your brain needs good fuel to be able to function. Make sure to eat foods that are high in the nutrients your brain needs to protect itself. A diet high in processed foods and added sugar can lead to increased risk of dementia due to inflammation in the brain. A high sugar diet has also been linked to diabetes, a possible risk factor for dementia.
Action Strategy: Take an honest look at what you eat in a day. Is what you eat good for your brain? Consider adapting parts of the Mediterranean diet into your life or aim to replace one sugary food with a whole food. For example, instead of eating a blueberry muffin, try a cup of fresh or frozen blueberries with a sprinkle of nuts or seeds.
3. Take your brain for a walk.
Getting up and moving helps to keep your body and brain strong. Research is unclear on whether exercise prevents dementia, but there are many studies that suggest regular activity is good for your brain. One even showed low dementia risk among very fit women. Physical activity helps prevent other health conditions linked to dementia including:
- High blood pressure
Action Strategy: Just do it. Start small but make sure you start. Add a small activity, depending on your level of physical fitness. This could be as simple as walking up and down a hallway a few times or as challenging as a 5-mile hike with friends. Aim to fit 150 minutes of physical movement that gets your heart beating faster into each week.
4. Limit your brain’s exposure to alcohol.
The American Addiction Centers reports that drinking alcohol can increase dementia risk. A study found that people who drink 5 or more bottles of beer in one sitting were 3 times more likely to have dementia by age 65.
Action Strategy: Binge drinking is hard on your brain. Drinking large amounts of alcohol can stop your neurons from re-growing. If you choose to drink, limit yourself to one glass of wine or other favorite drink. If you are concerned about your own drinking or a loved one’s, seek professional help.
5. Let your brain breathe.
The Alzheimer’s Association has found strong links between smoking and dementia. Smoking causes damage to your heart and blood vessels. Cigarette smoke can also cause swelling in your brain that is linked to dementia.
Action Strategy: Smoking can be a lifelong habit, which makes it very difficult to quit. There are many programs that can be helpful. Consider talking to your doctor or browsing the Smoke Free website. You might be surprised at the apps, programs and support available.
6. Keep your brain flexible.
Neuroplasticity is a big word for the brain's ability to continue changing and growing. A study in the JAMA Psychiatry journal suggests that a flexible brain can slow dementia. The thought is that when you have more brain connections, you are less likely to suffer from dementia because your brain is more able to adapt and create new connections.
Action Strategy: Make a goal to use your brain every day. Whether it is learning a new language or figuring out your new phone. The more you continue to use your brain, the healthier your brain stays.
7. Give your brain a strong heart.
Your heart and brain are strongly connected. A healthy heart gives you a better chance for a healthy brain. 80% of people with Alzheimer’s disease also have heart disease. It is possible that the decline in the brain is not noticed unless it is paired with poor heart health. Evidence suggests that controlling high blood pressure could be key to better brain health.
Action Strategy: Have your blood pressure checked by a health professional regularly. If you have high blood pressure, discuss steps to improve your heart health. For example, take 5 deep breaths every hour to reduce stress. Make sure to exercise regularly and eat a heart-healthy diet.
8. Let your brain hear.
The Hearing Loss Association of America reported a possible link between hearing loss and dementia. A 6-year study found that those with a loss of hearing were 24% more likely to see a cognitive decline. Some possible suggestions as to why this happens are:
- Straining to hear can cause more stress in the brain. This leaves less room for forming memories.
- Hearing loss can lead to a decline in relationships. When you struggle to carry on a conversation you can become isolated which also harms your brain.
Action Strategy: Get your hearing checked. If you have hearing loss, discuss your options for a hearing aid or cochlear implant. Also make sure that you keep your ear canals clean. A build-up of ear wax can limit hearing but is easily handled by a health professional.
9. Give your brain strong relationships.
Your brain thrives when you are talking and spending time with those you love. Building and maintaining strong relationships with others is vital to your health and may even reduce your risk of dementia by 26%, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health.
Action Strategy: Make healthy relationships a priority. Feeling safe and connected can improve your brain health so offer your love and time freely but also set limits on spending time with people who may be toxic.
10. Keep your brain safe.
One of the most obvious ways to prevent dementia is to prevent all forms of brain injury. Serious head trauma has been linked to a higher risk for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. A head injury that involves a loss of consciousness has long term impacts on your brain health.
Action Strategy: Always wear a seatbelt to reduce your risk of head injury in case of a car accident. If you enjoy sports or bike riding, make sure you always use a proper helmet. For most seniors, head injuries will occur during a fall in the house. To keep you on your feet, take an afternoon to proactively reduce fall risks by removing any tripping hazards and adding better lighting.
Although there is no proven way to prevent dementia, these ten strategies may help. You might also enjoy the benefits of a stronger, healthier body and improved relationships with your loved ones.