BY GEMMA WILCOCK | WOMAN&HOME MAGAZINE UK | DECEMBER 27, 2023
While forgetting where you’ve put your keys or struggling to remember names can be a natural part of getting older, it can also be a sign of something serious.
Whether it’s you or someone you love, dementia is affecting more and more of us. “We know that, on average, women live longer than men and, as age is a risk factor for dementia, this may be part of the reason we see more cases in women,” says Caroline Scates, Deputy Director for Admiral Nurse Development, from Dementia UK. “Other factors include having health conditions such as heart disease and depression, which are more common in women and are known to increase the risk.”
While there’s currently no cure, it’s possible to help delay – and even in some cases prevent – it from developing. “Ethnicity, gender and genetics can play a part in a person’s likelihood of developing dementia. However, research suggests that lifestyle changes can be adopted to help reduce the risk,” says Caroline. As well as recognizing the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease – the most common cause of dementia – there are some lifestyle changes you can make to try to reduce your risk.
Steps you can take to try to decrease your risk of getting dementia
There are around 900,000 people living with dementia in the UK, according to a report commissioned by Alzheimer’s Society (5.8 million in the U.S.). This is projected to rise to 1.6 million in the UK by 2040 (11+ million in the U.S.). Here’s what may keep brain-aging symptoms at bay.
1. Work up a sweat
Keeping active is vital for good health – and happens to be one of the best ways to help deter dementia too. Physical activity boosts blood supply, reducing the risk of heart disease and vascular problems, which are factors, particularly in vascular dementia. “Regular exercise also keeps you mentally and socially active,” says Jaina Engineer, Knowledge Services Manager at the Alzheimer’s Society, from Alzheimer’s Society. “Activities like tai chi, Pilates and yoga are good for balance and staying flexible, and may prevent you from falling.”
Swimming and fitness classes are both ways to raise your heart rate, but gardening, walking, dancing and cleaning can also help lift your mood, and improve memory and thinking skills. Find something you love and do it several times a week – whether it’s the best exercise for stress relief, Pilates for strength training or regular walks.
2. Stick to a balanced diet
A balanced diet will provide all the essential nutrients needed to keep your mind and body healthy. “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain, so cut down on – or avoid – high-fat or processed foods, such as cakes and pastries, sweets, cheese, red meats, fried and fast foods, as well as butter and margarine,” says Caroline. “Vascular dementia is caused by the blood supply to the brain being interrupted. The cells are then starved of oxygen, so eating healthy, fresh food that maintains health and good circulation is important.”
Wondering what to pile on your plate? Stick to a Mediterranean diet that includes a varied range of fruit, vegetables, pulses, fish, poultry, whole grains and nuts.
3. Quit smoking
If you puff, you are more at risk. Smoking affects the circulation of blood around the body, including the blood vessels in the brain. “While not everyone who smokes will develop dementia, we know that it increases the risk of vascular problems, which are risk factors, and in addition, toxins in smoke can cause inflammation, increasing risk to health,” says Caroline. Need help ditching the cigs? The NHS has a Quit Smoking app to support you as you track your progress. (In the U.S., there are similar supports offered by the American Lung Association and AARP).
4. Cut back on alcohol
Head-splitting hangovers aside, regularly drinking alcohol exposes the brain to harmful chemicals. “People who drink a lot of alcohol are more likely to show damage to an area of the brain associated with memory, called the hippocampus. It is recommended not to consume more than 14 units of alcohol a week,” says Caroline. Try to spread this amount over at least three days – saying goodbye to binge drinking. One small glass of wine each day for a week is equal to 14 units. You don’t need to stop drinking for good but it is important to be mindful of how many units you are consuming.
5. Flex your mind
Not only are they lots of fun, but participating in mentally engaging hobbies and activities can help your brain to better cope with disease and handle stress. This could be puzzles, crosswords, arts and crafts, card games, reading or playing an instrument. “Evidence suggests that keeping the mind active can help to improve memory and concentration. This in turn supports the management of daily tasks,” says Caroline.
6. Prioritize your sleep
Now more than ever we should be prioritizing sleep aim for around seven to eight hours each night, even if you occasionally get less. “A good routine, calm environment, suitable lighting and temperature are all things to consider when trying to ensure good sleep,” says Caroline. Struggling to nod off? “You might benefit from relaxation methods, such as soft music or mindfulness.” Search YouTube for bedtime meditations or check out our guide on how to sleep better, once and for all.
7. Find your tribe
You may spend more time alone as you get older, so work at strengthening a solid social network. Meeting new friends as an adult can seem daunting but once you put yourself out there, it’s easier than you think. Mix with others as much as possible – whether that’s meeting a friend for a weekly coffee, having quick daily chats on the phone, or getting involved in group activities.
8. Don’t ignore any health issues
The best thing you can do is to monitor your overall health. Certain conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, can increase your risk of dementia. “We still have much to learn, but high blood sugars can damage blood vessels, leading to cognitive decline, so reducing your risk of diabetes by maintaining a healthy weight and diet is important,” says Caroline.
Can dementia be treated?
In short, not yet. But scientists are always looking for ways to detect and treat symptoms. Recent breakthroughs include…
- Lecanemab: This has been shown to slow down the changes by attacking a protein called amyloid, which builds up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.
- Urine testing: An early-detection urine test could be developed. This follows a study in China that tested samples from patients and found a significant increase in levels of formic acid.
Ultimately, there is no conclusive way to prevent dementia, but in general, leading a healthy lifestyle may help address the risk factors that are commonly associated with it. Whether that’s cutting down on your alcohol intake, giving up cigarettes or introducing more greens into your diet, these lifestyle changes carry a huge range of health benefits, so they’re not ones you’ll ever regret making.
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