The cost of care for dementia patients can often exceed the combined cost of treatment and care for cancer, stroke and heart disease. Research continues relentlessly for a cure and to pinpoint the specific causes of dementia.
Given the damage that dementia can have on individuals, their families, and the high cost of care, we can adopt a positive approach that will help reduce the risk of dementia.
Research has shown that the risk of dementia decreases by making some simple yet effective lifestyle changes may help prevent dementia, slow it down or even reverse some of the symptoms. In the simplest of terms, dementia affects the way that messages are relayed to and from the brain resulting in some or all of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty with Language, forgetting the name of objects or everyday words.
- Repeating the same questions over and over again.
- Being unable to recognise familiar people, places or voices.
- Lack a sense of direction or becoming disorientated.
- Lose the sense of time.
- Lack a sense of hygiene.
- Inability to recognise situations that are unsafe or could result in being vulnerable.
- Decreased sense of the importance of nutrition.
By increasing brain and physical activity, and making lifestyle choices, you can help reduce the risk of these symptoms. Many of the following suggested activities will overlap, for example attending an exercise class is also an opportunity to socialise.
1. Eat Healthy
Eating Healthy includes watching your weight; lowering cholesterol and making sure that the food you eat contains the nutrients and vitamins that your body needs for maintenance and an active lifestyle.
Ideally, you need to avoid foods that are high in fat and pumped full of artificial sweeteners and chemicals, essentially avoid overly processed foods.
In studies (Nutrition Research Journal), food additives, processing, and high fats can affect memory, especially in older adults. But diets that are based on antioxidants, omega-3 and fresh produce can help protect the body from dementia. Antioxidants are especially important as they reduce inflammation and injury to the neurons that carry messages to and from the brain.
Healthy foods include:
- Fruits, such as berries, prunes and oranges (high in antioxidants and fibre).
- Vegetables, broccoli, spinach and onions (high in nutrients and antioxidants).
- Beans and pulses, such as lentils, chickpeas and barley (high in fibre and nutrients).
- Oils such as olive oil, (low in fats and high in omega-3).
- Fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines (high in all the good omegas).
Cut down on sugars and refined carbohydrates. They are mainly found in highly processed white flour, pasta, rice, bread, sauces and cereals. Opt for the less processed brown varieties that contain more fibre. The more the food has been processed, the more likely it is to cause inflammation.
Drinking 2-4 cups tea a day is recommended as it aids mental alertness. Coffee is also good, but it is not as powerful as tea.
Homemade food is often the best option, as you know exactly what ingredients are used. If you have difficulty in preparing and cooking your own meals, ask a family member or friend to help you to bulk bake and freeze individual portions. You can defrost and add fresh vegetables when you are ready to eat.
Food supplements such as folic acid; vitamin B12, Vitamin D, and Omega 3, 6 and 9 are proven to support brain health.
Before starting any new diet or nutrition supplements, it is a good idea to seek advice from your doctor. This will ensure there are no contraindications with any prescribed medications or allergies.
2. Regular exercise
Regular exercise, as well as a healthy diet, has got to rate as the two most important things that you can do to reduce your risk of developing dementia. Just by exercise alone, you can reduce your risk by 50%! Additionally, people who are already experiencing cognitive problems, exercise can help slow down any further deterioration. Exercise stimulates the brain by maintaining old neural connections as well as making new neural connections.
What to aim for:
150 minutes of moderate combination of cardio and strength training exercise per week. Moderate exercise includes swimming and brisk walking.
Muscle mass reduces over time, so it is important that if you are over the age of 65, you increase your muscle mass to maintain brain health. By adding 2-3 strength sessions a week the risk of dementia is reduced by half.
Ageing can also cause problems with coordination and balance to counteract this classes in yoga, tai chi and pilates can be very therapeutic. Some leisure centres offer classes aimed for the over 50’s (Young at heart) that focus on aerobics, yoga and weight training.
When starting a new form of exercise make sure that you consult your doctor first. Attending keep fit classes also means that you get to meet new people and motivate each other.
Walking deserves its own section as an activity. A walk is always beneficial if it has a purpose. If you have a dog, then they are always delighted in going for a walk in the fresh air.
Using a pedometer is a great idea as you can determine your progress over a period of time.
There are also other benefits and reasons to walk. These include improved lung and heart function; heightened observational skills; stabilising blood pressure; lowering blood sugar; supporting digestive issues; reduction of anxiety and insomnia.
Walking can calm an overactive brain.
It is a good way to engage in an outdoor activity with others.
Walk in different places such as forests or by a river, take the time to look around you and notice small seasonal changes.
By walking 6-9 miles a week, you will lower your risk of memory problems by 50%.
Keeping to a routine of walking for 40 minutes, three times a week can help improve cognitive skills.
By joining a walking group (information can often be found through leisure centre activities; keep fit groups or church groups) it can make keeping fit a fun activity and a chance to socialise.
4. Learn to de-stress
Chronic or persistent stress can take a heavy toll on the brain, leading to shrinkage in the key area that focuses on memory. There are some simple techniques that you can use that will help you to de-stress, take time out from issues that are troubling you and ultimately, make time for yourself.
Learn to breathe
Deep breathing helps to restore inner peace and tranquility.
Take time for yourself. This could be a relaxing walk, playtime with a pet, or yoga.
Make time for fun
This includes leisure activities and hobbies which are just as important to health as diet and exercise.
Laugh a lot. Laughter is good medicine as it helps to relieve stress. Enjoy the company of people who share your sense of humour.
Reading can be one of the most relaxing activities. While you are reading, you are engaging your brain in an activity that is mentally stimulating. Reading an interesting novel can help you to temporarily escape your own stressful events and negative thoughts that may be currently invading your mind. Don’t be the person that says that they are too busy to read. Reading can greatly reduce your chances of developing dementia.
5. Be social
Humans don’t do well in isolation from other humans. We need the stimulus of being with other humans to share ideas, troubles and happy moments.
It is important that as we age maintaining and developing new friendships is a priority. The more that people over the age of 50 get involved in social activities the more they protect themselves from the onset of dementia.
Typical social activities may involve:
- Going to the cinema with a friend/going on a day trip or shopping expedition.
- Attending a concert or live play.
- Meeting up with old friends or making new friends.
- Swimming or taking an exercise class. (always more fun and motivating than going on your own).
- Staying in contact with family and friends through visits, emails, texts, social networks or phone calls.
Most people enjoy social activities, but some people may need a bit of support to enable them to get involved.
6. Learn a new skill
Make a to-do list. If you have always wanted to learn a new language then now is the time to do it. Ask yourself what you will do when you learn a new language? Would you like to travel to that country? Learn more about the culture?
One of the most effective ways of reducing your risk of developing dementia is by keeping the mind sharp. The more cognitive stimulus, the stronger the neuron connections become.
Take a class in an area of interest that compels you to think, rationalise and apply logic. When you have goals that extend beyond your chosen new skill, then this can continue to help keep your brain healthy.
7. Learn to play an instrument
Appreciation of music is one of the last senses that are affected by dementia. Not only does listening to music promote effective neural pathways it can also promote positive mental health. Listening to favourite music is not just relaxing it can also help retrieval of precious memories.
Take this one step further, by learning to play an instrument (if you already play an instrument then consider learning to play an additional instrument), as this helps tap into areas of the brain that are not normally used.
Additionally, to promoting neural pathways, this activity can also help muscle memory that can support other skills such as craft work, driving and other manual skills. The more frequently a musical instrument is played, the more active the brain becomes.
8. Play, laugh and have fun
Taking part in any activity that is mentally stimulating can significantly decrease the risk of developing dementia. By adding humour and fun into the activity, the risk decreases even further.
Playing board games is something you either enjoy or detest.
Many people often discount the value of playing board games as being juvenile and a waste of time. In fact playing board games have been shown to decrease the risk of dementia (studies cited in New England Journal of Medicine), however, in the same study it was found that people who did not play board games but did other activities such as writing or participating in group discussions did not reduce their dementia risk.
The important aspect of board games it that it provides an opportunity for socialisation, strategy development and fun (as long as the game is not taken too seriously).
9. Cognitive exercises
Doing puzzles regularly is one of the most effective ways to not only stay sharp but to increase your brainpower. There is a variety of puzzles available that are easily accessible in books; newspapers; on your mobile phone; tablet or laptop. Many of the puzzles that are available online through apps are graded in difficulty, so you can build on your brain power by using familiar puzzles or by trying something new.
The important aspect is that puzzles are constantly changing, challenging and no two are the same.
Try a variety.
- Crossword puzzles (cryptic, short coffee break and even the ones in the Times).
- IQ puzzles
- Math problem puzzles
- Optical illusions
- Logic puzzles
- Word games
- Memory games
- Search and find games
Time spent on puzzles will keep the brain constantly stimulated. Aim to spend 30 minutes a day on this type of activity to help reduce the risk of dementia.
10. Get quality sleep
There is no doubt that getting a good night’s sleep can result in being more able to cope with what the next day has to throw at you. A quality sleep gives the body chance to rest, relax and restore. The brain uses this time to process information (incoming) and compartmentalise.
As we age, there is a tendency to not sleep as deeply or for as long as we did when we were younger. This may then result in being awake very early, and tiring easily due to a poor sleep patterns.
How to get a quality sleep
Reinforce circadian rhythms by going to bed and getting up at the same time every day. Your brain will respond to regularity.
If you find that you need to nap in the daytime, it can also affect your night time sleep. So, if you need an energising afternoon nap, set a timer for 30 minutes.
Ideally don’t use a computer, tablet or your phone in the bedroom or for at least 2 hours before bedtime. Use of these can excite the brain, preventing sleep.
Snoring can prevent a good night’s sleep. If you have sleep apnea, then it can be potentially dangerous due to interrupted breathing. See your doctor for advice.
If you have difficulty in falling to sleep, don’t lie in bed tossing, turning and worrying about sleep; get up make a camomile tea or read an unexciting book.
Have a bedtime ritual. Take a relaxing bath, do some simple stretches, dim the lights. This will signal the brain that it is time for some quality sleep.
Clear your mind of the day by writing a page in your journal. Make to-do lists as this will help you to drop off to sleep without worrying.
Stress, anxiety or negative internal dialogues can prevent sleep. Read or relax in another room. Try a milky drink or turkey sandwich to help aid sleep.
New studies have highlighted that poor sleep is not a symptom of Dementia it, it is a possible risk factor. Advice is that if you are affected by poor sleep patterns, you should seek medical advice. Most adults need 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night.
This list of activities is based on sound medical research. To further reduce your risk of dementia, if you smoke you should stop smoking; only drink alcohol in moderation; watch your weight and monitor your blood pressure.
Most importantly make sure that you eat well, exercise, socialise, keep positive and have fun.