At the moment we cannot cure dementia, or prevent it entirely. Not all older people get dementia, and not everyone who gets dementia is older. There are some younger people who also get dementia. What we do know, is that there are some things we can do to reduce our risk of getting dementia.
READING TIME: 5 MINUTES
Dementia isn't one specific disease, but it is a term used to describe a common set of symptoms that are caused by disorders which affect the brain. When someone has dementia, it starts to interfere with a person's normal social or working life, because dementia affects a person's thinking, behaviour and ability to perform everyday tasks. When we start to notice these changes, they can start to happen slowly or quickly, and can affect people in different ways, as there are many different types of dementia.
Research has been done over the last few decades to identify what puts people at risk of dementia. Some things cannot be influenced (ageing is one of those factors). But there are many things that we can influence, to reduce our risk of dementia.
The changes that occur in our brain to cause dementia often happen over long periods of time (well before we notice). High blood pressure and obesity, also don't happen overnight, but can lead to stroke, as well as dementia. This means that tackling some changes around food to reduce our risk of dementia, will also help reduce other chronic diseases. We can start having an impact on our future risk of chronic disease, including dementia, by making decisions about a healthy lifestyle early rather than later (even as early as mid-life). This a decision that is best not put off till tomorrow.
I am going to talk about three things that we can do to reduce our risk of dementia and they are all to do with the food we eat and it's impact on us. I know that changing our eating habits can be difficult, but I don't think these three things are too hard as starting points (and there is a benefit in making a start). This protective factor against dementia (the food we eat) is completely within our power to influence.
It is one thing to 'say' that making decisions about the food we eat is easy to influence, but it is often not so easy to manage those decisions when life gets busy. This post is not about ways to make that easier. We know that decision fatigue plays a big part in frustrating our goals and preferred choices, so I will write about healthy eating and decision fatigue in another post. Today, I will focus on why it is important to make that change (to reduce our risk of dementia); and three areas where we can focus our attention initially.
3 actions towards reducing our risk of dementia
Three food related areas where we can start to reduce our risk of dementia today (Important: to benefit from these steps as a 'risk reduction', we need to start now, and keep going however haltingly we start).
1. Healthy food choices
This is not surprising. Risk factors that are related to our heart (cardiovascular risk factors) like high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity can all be controlled or changed through a healthy diet and extra support by trained professionals. There is evidence to show that there is a reduced risk of dementia, slower cognitive decline and reduced risk of stroke connected with adherence to a lifestyle that is aligned with a Mediterranean diet (appropriate balance of vegetables, olive oils and protein). Thinking about smoking choices and alcohol consumption also have an impact.
Starting to swap out some of our less healthy choices for healthier choices is a good step. Every little change makes a difference - for example a heart healthy butter or cooking oil, or a different milk product. Often we can quickly get used to the taste of these new products and slip them into our shopping trolley on a regular basis. My first step was finding healthier chocolate - everyone has to start somewhere.
2. Regular health check ups
We can lower our risk of dementia by having regular check ups with our primary care practitioner to ensure that we are within healthy limits for our age group. Several disorders such as depression, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol have been associated with a higher risk of dementia. Checking that we are generally healthy (enough iron, limited stress, etc.) will also ensure that we have energy for our daily activities and exercise, which help with decision making, which leads to improved capacity to manage a healthier lifestyle.
Ensuring that we have a good relationship with a primary care practitioner who knows and understands our personal health, and can help us reach a comfortable healthy status for key areas of our life is very important for long term wellbeing. Many of these chronic health conditions are connected with the food that we eat. Getting support from people who are well trained to understand the guidance we need to make a change, physically, mentally and emotionally, will make a big difference to a successful transition.
Centuries ago we lived in a village where we all worked together to succeed. These days we often try to do things alone, but I don't think we were meant to work that way. We need to find people who can support us and guide us through identifying and overcoming our individual health challenges or high risk areas.
3. Make friends and have a conversation
We can reduce our risk of dementia by ensuring that we are connecting in a meaningful way with people in our social circle. At first it is important to just make connections, this can be done in a way that each of us feels most comfortable - don't let other people dictate how you should do this (catch up for coffee, use social media, chat over the phone, join a group with common interests).
Research has shown that effective risk reduction occurs when we start to interact socially with people we enjoy, combined with conversations and/or situations that are mentally stimulating (this means we are working at a level that requires concentrated thought about where we are or what we are saying) and some physical activity (the ultimate multi-tasking). This can be something to work up to if you are not quite ready for this level of social interaction yet - first, start by enjoying meals with other people that you like having conversations with, but try to ensure that the social meals you are enjoying are healthy options.
Two stories from my own experience to get you thinking.
a) Friday lunch. Whenever possible, I have started scheduling in a Friday lunch meeting with colleagues or friends at work. I go to a cafe near the office that serves lovely healthy food. It helps me to take time out to eat well (I have a habit of rushing through lunch at my desk); it reduces stress by giving me a break from the routine of desk work which enhances creativity; and it provides a good opportunity to catch up with colleagues. If I can manage this once a month, I am really happy as it is a change in my routine, I try different food, and I am socially connecting with other people plus having interesting conversations.
b) Walking around a new city. During the recent Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast I spent many days walking around the town with my extended family, meeting new people on public transport, watching events, and working out the completely revised transport system that was organised for the games. It was like visiting a whole new town. This was a cognitively challenging adventure week without actually going very far - I socialised with people I knew (my family), lots of people I didn't know from around the world, negotiated public transport (challenging for me) using APPS and volunteers and way finding; and walked for miles.
HOW CAN THIS HELP YOU? Every 3 seconds someone in the world develops dementia. Dementia currently affects almost 50 million people worldwide (as at January 2018).
It appears that risk factors for dementia are connected to one another. It may be that living a healthy and engaged life is the best risk reduction activity for dementia, because doing only one thing is insufficient to prevent the disease. Don't put off till tomorrow a decision about your health:
- Change one thing today (make an appointment with your GP).
- Change one thing tomorrow (call a friend).
- Then change something else (swap out a popular supermarket or treat product for a healthier option).
Today we've been thinking about why it is important to start taking steps now to reduce the risk of dementia (a future impact). The added benefit of reducing your risk of dementia, is that you will be healthier now (and that has immediate impact).
Is there anyone you know who hasn't heard that we can do something today to reduce our future risk of dementia? Share this post with them and start up a conversation (it's all a part of connecting). Let me know how your conversation goes in the comments below.