How to help prevent dementia

A slightly fading memory isn’t uncommon as you get older, but dementia is much more than that. It is not a normal part of aging.

There are some things you can do to reduce your risk of developing dementia, or at least slow it down. But since some causes are beyond your control, you can’t completely prevent it.

Let’s take a closer look at some causes of dementia and what you can do right now to start reducing your risk.

Dementia is an umbrella term for the chronic and progressive loss of mental function. It is not a disease, but a group of symptoms with various causes. There are two main categories for dementia, Alzheimer’s and non-Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease dementia involves memory loss, as well as impaired other brain functions such as:

  • language
  • speech
  • perception

Non-Alzheimer’s dementias deal with frontotemporal lobar degenerations, with two main types. One type mainly affects the word. The other type involves:

  • behavioral changes
  • personality changes
  • lack of emotion
  • loss of the social filter
  • apathy
  • problems with organization and planning

In these non-Alzheimer’s dementias, memory loss appears later in the progression of the disease. The second most common cause is vascular dementia. Some other non-Alzheimer’s dementias are:

Mixed dementia is when there are multiple causes. For example, a person with Alzheimer’s disease who also has vascular dementia has mixed dementia.

Some types of dementia are due to things beyond your control. But there are some things you can do to reduce your risk of developing dementia and maintain good overall health.

Exercise

Regular physical activity can help reduce the risk of dementia. A 2019 study have shown that aerobic exercise can slow down atrophy of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory.

Another 2019 study revealed that active seniors tend to maintain cognitive abilities better than those who are less active. This was also the case for participants who had brain injuries or biomarkers related to dementia.

Regular exercise is also beneficial for weight control, circulation, heart health, and mood, all of which could affect your risk of dementia.

If you have a serious health condition, talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise regimen. And if you haven’t exercised in a while, start small, maybe just 15 minutes a day. Choose easy exercises and start there. Work your way up to:

  • 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobics, such as brisk walking, or
  • 75 minutes per week of more strenuous activity, such as jogging

Twice a week, add some resistance activities to train your muscles, such as pushups, situps, or weight lifting.

Some sports, such as tennis, can provide endurance training and aerobics at the same time. Find something you like and have fun with it.

Try not to spend too much time sitting or lying down during the day. Make movement a priority every day.

Eat well

A diet that’s good for the heart is good for your brain and overall health. A healthy diet can reduce the risk of diseases that can lead to dementia. According to World Health Organization (WHO), a balanced diet consists of:

  • fruits and vegetables
  • lentils and beans
  • cereals, tubers or roots
  • eggs, milk, fish, lean meat

Things to avoid or minimize are:

  • saturated fats
  • animal fats
  • sugars
  • salt

Your diet should focus on whole, nutrient-rich foods. Avoid high calorie and processed foods that provide little or no nutritional value.

Not smoking

Research shows that smoking can increase the risk of dementia, especially if you are 65 or older. Smoking affects blood circulation throughout the body, including the blood vessels in the brain.

If you smoke but have trouble quitting, talk to your doctor about quit smoking programs.

Go easy on the alcohol

Research shows that excessive alcohol consumption can be a major risk factor for all types of dementia, including early-onset dementia. The current Dietary guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking up to one drink per day for women and up to two for men.

One drink equals 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. This results in:

  • 12 ounces of beer with 5% alcohol
  • 5 ounces of wine with 12% alcohol
  • 1.5 oz of 80 proof distilled spirits with 40% alcohol

Keep your mind active

An active mind can help reduce the risk of dementia, so keep testing yourself. Some examples could be:

  • study something new, like a new language
  • do puzzles and play
  • reading inspiring books
  • learn to read music, pick up an instrument or start writing
  • stay socially involved: keep in touch with others or participate in group activities
  • volunteer

Manage general health

Staying in good shape can help reduce your risk of dementia, so get yourself a yearly physique. See your doctor if you have symptoms of:

  • depression
  • hearing loss
  • sleep problems

Manage existing health conditions such as:

  • diabetes
  • heart disease
  • hypertension
  • high cholesterol

The risk of developing dementia increases with age. Of 5-8 percent of people over the age of 60 have some form of dementia, the WHO says.

Conditions that can increase the risk of dementia include:

Contributing factors can include:

  • long-term alcohol or drug use
  • obesity
  • poor diet
  • repeated blows to the head
  • sedentary lifestyle
  • to smoke

Dementia is a group of symptoms involving memory, reasoning, thinking, mood, personality, and behavior. Some early signs are:

  • forgetfulness
  • repeat things
  • things out of place
  • confusion about dates and times
  • difficulty finding the right words
  • changes in mood or behavior
  • changes of interests

Subsequent signs may include:

  • worsening of memory problems
  • difficulty carrying on a conversation
  • difficulty completing simple tasks such as paying bills or working on the phone
  • neglect personal hygiene
  • poor balance, fall
  • inability to solve problems
  • changes in sleep patterns
  • frustration, agitation, confusion, disorientation
  • anxiety, sadness, depression
  • hallucinations

Memory loss doesn’t always mean dementia. What initially looks like dementia may turn out to be a symptom of a treatable condition, such as:

  • vitamin deficiency
  • side effects of drugs
  • abnormal thyroid function
  • normal pressure hydrocephalus

Diagnosing dementia and its cause is difficult. There is no single test to diagnose. Some types of dementia cannot be confirmed until after death.

If you have signs and symptoms of dementia, your doctor will likely start with your medical history, including:

  • family history of dementia
  • specific symptoms and when they started
  • other conditions diagnosed
  • medications

Your physical exam will likely include checking:

  • blood pressure
  • hormones, vitamins and other blood tests
  • reflexes
  • balance assessment
  • sensory response

Depending on the results, your primary care physician may refer you to a neurologist for further evaluation. Cognitive and neuropsychological tests can be used to evaluate:

  • memory
  • troubleshooting
  • language skills
  • math skills

The doctor may also order:

  • brain imaging test
  • genetic tests
  • psychiatric evaluation

A decline in mental functioning that interferes with daily activities can be diagnosed as dementia. Laboratory tests and brain imaging can help rule out or confirm certain diseases as a cause.

Find help for dementia

If you or someone you care about has dementia, the following organizations can help or refer you to services.

Alzheimer’s disease medications include:

  • cholinesterase inhibitors: donepezil (Aricept), rivastigmine (Exelon) and galantamine (Razadyne)
  • NMDA receptor antagonist: memantine (Namenda)

These drugs can help improve memory function. They can slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, but they don’t stop it. These medications may also be prescribed for other dementias, such as Parkinson’s disease, Lewy body dementia, and vascular dementia.

The doctor may also prescribe medications for other symptoms, such as:

  • depression
  • sleep disorders
  • hallucinations
  • agitation

Occupational therapy can help with things like:

  • coping mechanisms
  • safer behaviors
  • behavior management
  • break down tasks into simpler steps

Some types of dementia can be effectively treated and reversed, particularly those caused by:

  • Vitamin B-12 deficiency and other metabolic disorders
  • accumulation of cerebral spinal fluid in the brain (normal pressure hydrocephalus)
  • depression
  • use of drugs or alcohol
  • hypoglycemia
  • hypothyroidism
  • subdural hematoma following a head injury
  • tumors that can be removed surgically

Most types of dementia are not reversible or curable, but they are still treatable. These include those caused by:

  • AIDS dementia complex
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • vascular dementia

Your prognosis depends on many factors, such as:

  • cause of dementia
  • response to treatment
  • age and general health

Your doctor can help you understand more about your individual perspective.

Dementia is a group of symptoms that affect memory and other cognitive functions. The leading cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, followed by vascular dementia.

Some types of dementia are due to things you cannot change. But lifestyle choices that include regular exercise, a balanced diet, and mental commitment can help reduce the risk of developing dementia.

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