How to prevent dementia. Yes, really!
Dementia is a devastating condition, affecting over 820,000 people in the UK by reducing their ability to live meaningful, independent lives. 1 in 3 people in the UK today will go on to develop dementia, meaning a staggering 1 million people will be living with dementia by 2025 . For Dementia Action Week, Beingwell's resident psychologist and expert in cognitive decline, Anna Sandford-James, shares her top tips for preventing dementia.
We’ve all noticed signs of our own ageing, am I right? For me, it’s the lines forming between my eyebrows; for my mum, it’s her blonde hair fading to white; and for my dad, it’s losing his muscle strength (at least now he can claim he once had some). But what we tend to be less aware of, is the effects of ageing inside our brains. As we go through life, we expose our bodies to many sources of wear and tear, which can include stress, poor health, bad diet and toxins like smoking and alcohol. Just as our hair, skin and muscles show signs of ageing- so do our brains, from as early as age 24! This, of course, alters how effectively we can think and manage our feelings and behaviours (our cognition). Scientists now consider cognitive ageing as a continuum, one that we all exist on as we get older- but do not need to slide down!
So, should I stop fretting about wrinkles and worry more about my brain ageing?
Well yes, and no. The good news is that just because our brain changes as we age, it isn’t inevitable that this brutally destroys our thinking abilities. In fact, some people completely escape all aspects of cognitive decline while reaching extreme ages (100+) AND having the physical signs of dementia in their brains.
Here's Hendrikje van Andel Schipper, who died at age 115 in 2005 “completely cognitively healthy”:
In fact, in 2017, scientists said there was now enough evidence to say 1/3rd of dementia cases can actually be prevented through healthy lifestyle choices!
The Lancet (one of the top medical journals in the world) identifies 9 modifiable risk factors for dementia; including lower levels of cognitive activity, physical health and social interaction. So, experiencing cognitive decline as we age really depends on how we choose to live our lives, not just how old we are!
Here are some Beingwell tips, based on science, to help you make the right lifestyle choices and become more mentally resilient, just like Hendrikje!
Engage your brain! The ‘Use it or lose it’ hypothesis
Think of your brain like my dad’s biceps, if we don’t continue to practise tasks that push our brain to work hard, our brainpower will decline! Challenging our brains daily helps maintain the blood flow and signalling needed for it to work effectively. Neuroplasticity, or the ability of our brain to adapt and change to learn new things, is a lifelong feature of the human brains. Even in the early stages of dementia, brain networks that carry out mental abilities can alter their efficiency, and get better, through regular practice. Our thinking well tool, MyCognition was shown to reverse the decline in early-stage dementia patients after 24 weeks of regular use!
Exercise often! Keep the blood pumping
Keeping physically fit transfers its effects straight to the brain. Aerobic fitness is shown to protect against age-related brain damage. Exercising improves the ability of your brain to grow, adapt and change; making it more resilient to damage and enhancing your thinking skills. And being active doesn’t have to mean spending hours in the gym or playing an intense, sweaty sport. Research from McMaster University shows that even short spells of physical movement, like a brisk walk up and down the stairs a few times a day, successfully improves fitness levels!
Our brain’s need fuel, despite accounting for only 2% of our body’s weight they use up to 20% of the body's total calories. If we are filling ourselves with inadequate fuel, sooner or later our engines (brains) will experience a breakdown. Scientists are now realising the huge effect that nutrition has on our brain’s health, even designing specific diet plans shown to reduce the risk of cognitive decline. The Mediterranean-style diet (high in fish and seafood, fresh vegetables and fruits, beans and pulses, nuts and unsaturated fats like extra virgin olive oil) is one most associated with longevity of brain health. Food is the best way to get the nutrients we need for our brains to keep working properly. For example, amino acids in proteins such as meat and tofu support our bodies to make neurotransmitters (chemicals that allow brain signalling) and Omega 3 fatty acids, found in fish, nuts and seeds are needed to maintain the structure of our brain cells. In addition, foods containing flavonoids (cocoa, green tea, beans and citrus fruits) and choline (eggs, tofu and lettuce) have been shown to improve brain functioning and protect it from the negative effects of ageing. But be careful not to eat too much, as research shows that eating an excessive amount of calories might counteract the effects of otherwise ‘healthy’ diets.
Now we know this is a hard one, especially during a pandemic, but stress is repeatedly shown in research to reduce people’s ability to manage their thoughts and emotions effectively. When we say we’re feeling stressed, what we’re actually feeling is our bodies response to stress.
Stress causes the body to release hormones, which alter the way the brain’s immune cells function, causing them to attack the brain and impair how we think and feel. This is an evolutionary response that exists to help us adapt to immediate dangers (stressors) and usually stops once the threat passes through soothing and relaxing behaviours. But the problem comes when stress builds up, and the danger doesn’t seem to pass, making us unable to cope effectively due to our impaired thoughts and feelings. Ongoing stress and the chronic inflammation that it causes is a significant risk factor for accelerated cognitive decline as we age.
Activities that help you manage stress, such as healthy coping strategies and relaxation techniques like mindfulness will give you the best chance at keeping your brain fit for longer. Click here for more tips on how to manage stress.
Stay connected with others
Just like stress, loneliness is bad news for our brain health. Feeling lonely is shown to increase the risk of experiencing a broad spectrum of health conditions, including depression, anxiety and dementia. Demographic trends in the UK mean the number of over 50s suffering from loneliness is set to reach two million by 2025. This is an unnecessary risk factor.
Why not try engaging in some of these suggested brain-healthy habits with others? We know how much easier it is to commit to exercising, if we do it with a friend, or to eat more healthily when we’ve got a support group egging us on.
To sum up: Getting older doesn’t equal getting dementia! Not every case is preventable or always caused by an unhealthy lifestyle, however, we can reduce our risk by making changes to the way we live our lives. There are so many things we can do to prevent the impact of our brain’s ageing on how our brains work. At Beingwell we want to bust the ageist myth that the older you get the sicker you get. We are here to help everyone live a little bit better every day - no matter your age!