Dementia is a debilitating illness affecting millions of people across the globe. While there is no known cure for the disease, recent studies indicate that there are specific lifestyle factors that augment our risk of developing it. This article presents the latest findings on changes you can make to ensure optimal mental health when you are older; some changes are small changes, others will take plenty of effort and discipline, but all are decisive when it comes to keeping dementia at bay:
1) Reduce your sugar intake: Sugar is hidden in a wide array of everyday foods, including sauces, crackers and ‘health bars’. When we consume these foods, we shunt a large amount of glucose into our blood, thereby forcing the pancreas to produce too much insulin. When this process goes on for too long, we become insulin resistant and our cells are unable to convert glucose into the energy we need.
Low levels of insulin and of insulin receptors have been linked strongly to Alzheimer’s disease. A recent study in the journal Neurology, meanwhile, has shown that sugar can interfere with brain function, even in persons who do not have diabetes. Researchers found that having chronically high glucose levels is linked to poor memory, decreased hippocampus size and a compromised hippocampal structure.
To reduce your risk of dementia, avoid foods with a high fructose content, as well as those made with refined sugar in general. Opt for healthier alternatives like stevia, a 100% natural sweetener. Also, prepare as many meals at home, to avoid hidden sugars making their way onto your table.
2) Quit smoking and drink moderately: Smoking increases your chance of developing dementia. If you quit smoking you can lower your risk, yet research has shown that even former smokers are more likely to suffer from vascular dementia (and other dementias) than those who have never smoked. Heavy drinking is also associated with poorer cognition in old age. While it is true that recent studies have pointed to the benefits of red wine, moderation is key; try not to go over one or two small glasses a day.
3) Lose weight if you need to: Research indicates that having a Body Mass Index of between 25 and 30 increases the risk of cognitive impairment by a third, but if your BMI is over 30, your risk is almost two-fold. Excess weight, particularly when it is located in the abdominal region, can increase your diabetes risk, which poses a risk for cognitive decline. Additional factors related to overweight and obesity include high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
For long-lasting weight, avoid crash diets in favor of a more sensible approach like the Mediterranean diet, with its emphasis on heart-healthy Omega-3 fats, whole grains, beans, nuts, fresh fruit and vegetables and healthy protein sources. Obtain an Omega-3 boost from walnuts and fatty fish such as wild Alaskan salmon and other fatty fish such as tuna.
4) Avoid benzodiazepine use: Benzodiazepines, present in commonly prescribed medications like Xanax, Valium and Ativan, increase a person’s chances of developing Alzheimer’s. The study found that the longer these medications are used, the higher the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. In the US, benzodiazepines were added to the American Geriatrics Society’s list of inappropriate drugs for older adults in 2012
5) Avoid head injuries: Head trauma can increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s; while this is most likely in the case of severe head injury, especially if leads you to unconsciousness lasting for over 24 hours, even mild, yet repeated head injuries, can increase the risk.
6) Stimulate your mind and socialize: Although physical activity is vital to promote health and wellbeing, it is also important to keep your mind stimulated and to ensure that you are interacting with family and friends. Research has shown that feeling lonely can up your chance of developing dementia by over 60%. Depression may have something to do with it, though this mental condition is an independent risk factor in itself. Keeping mentally challenged is also vital; ensure you continue to read, do puzzles, take up a musical instrument or even learn a new language. It is never too late to learn a new skill and if you can make new friends while you’re at it, all the better!