Can You Stop Dementia Progression With Lifestyle Changes?

January 4th, 2018

Dementia is an umbrella term for diseases, which affect the cognitive ability of an individual. The decline in mental health is so severe that it eventually leads to a crippled lifestyle and hindered performance in daily activities.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and accounts for 60 to 80% of the cases while vascular dementia is the second most common occurrence.

Cases of dementia are widespread and increasing at an alarming rate. In 2015, an estimated 45 million people worldwide had dementia. Moreover, according to a projection, by 2040, 1.2 million people will be living with dementia in England and Wales alone. These are a 57% increase from 2016 figures.

Dementia is often considered as a defining part of aging. However, recent research published by Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care (LCDPIC) emphasizes that aging is just one of the risk factors pertinent to this disease. In fact, specific actions and lifestyle modifications can reduce the risk and progression of dementia.

The report identified nine potentially modifiable risk factors associated with dementia. These include:

  • Midlife hearing loss
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Low levels of education
  • Depression
  • Smoking
  • Social isolation

The results established that as many as 35% of the dementia cases can be prevented by improving or avoiding these risk factors. The report further elaborated that midlife hearing loss could be responsible for 9.1% of the risk of developing dementia. Quitting school before secondary linked to 7.5%, smoking contributed to 5.5% and depression in later life was responsible for 4% of the dementia cases.

The absence of social interaction led to 2.3% of the risk, and obesity, lack of exercise and high blood pressure, combined contributed to approximately 5% of potential dementia cases.

Conversely, 65% of the occurrences are still due to factors beyond human control including aging and genetic history.

Dementia prevention and slowing the progression of dementia

Dr. Doug Brown, Director of research at Alzheimer’s Society, noted that while the estimated statistics that state the almost one-third of dementia cases are preventable are very promising, certain difficulties are still imminent.  He said,

“Not all of the nine risk factors identified are easily modifiable-factors, like poor education and social isolation are incredibly challenging to address. But there are easier wins, particularly cardiovascular factors like lower blood pressure and smoking cessation.”

Fiona Mathews, professor of epidemiology at Newcastle University, further eluded that intervention for social isolation and depression could still be worthwhile and valuable. She said,

“If we could actually resolve some of those issues, even if it is not 100% casual, it is likely we might be able to slow [dementia] progression- even if [an individual] is on a pathway to developing dementia already.”

While you cannot reverse or halt the impact of dementia altogether, you can take some measure to prevent it or slow down its progression. The following factors may reduce the effects of the damage by facilitating the connections between the remaining brain cells. With enhanced connectivity between brain cells, the functioning can be maintained for an extended period despite irreparable damage to certain parts of the brain.

Diet

A healthy diet including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may lower the risk of procuring dementia. These foods contain antioxidants that help protect brain neurons from cell-damaging chemicals, called free radicals.

Other food components that battle the onset of dementia include curcumin, present in turmeric, and omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish.

A study including 900 older men and women, researched the effects of docosahexaenoic (DHA), found in fish like salmon, herring, and sardines, on cognitive health. The scientist concluded that participants with the highest levels of DHA at the beginning of the study were 47% less likely to get dementia and 39% less likely to get Alzheimer’s diseases as compared to the rest of the group.

Furthermore, while there is limited evidence about the relationship between diet and dementia, heart-healthy eating may benefit the mental functioning. Heart-healthy eating includes limiting sugar intake and saturated fats consumption and increasing fruits, vegetables and whole grains in your diet.

Studies suggest diets most beneficial for evading dementia include DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and the Mediterranean diet.

DASH again comprises of vegetables and fruits as well as fat-free or low-fat dairy, poultry, fish, beans, seeds, nuts and whole grains.

Mediterranean diet includes relatively less red meat and emphasizes more on the leafy greens, whole grains, fish, shellfish, nuts, olive oil and other healthy fats. This makes it suitable for lowering the risk of dementia.

Exercise

Physical activity improves the overall health of the body including a healthier brain. Exercise enhances cognitive performance and reduces mental decline. It can lead to increased oxygen supply and blood flow to the brain cells augmenting their performance.

Therefore, even moderate activity levels decrease the risk of developing dementia, especially Alzheimer’s vascular dementia.

Studies strongly suggest that exercise, specifical aerobics, may mitigate cognitive impairment and reduces the risk of dementia. Even if you have not been physically active through the early years of your life, exercising in the later years can also benefit your brain health and have positive cognitive neuroprotective effects.

Heart-head connection

Several health problems associated with cardiovascular diseases such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, also increase the risk of dementia. Some autopsy reports show that a majority of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease also suffered from cardiovascular disease.

Therefore, to slow down the advancement of dementia, you should eat healthily and exercise regularly. In addition, you need to control your blood pressure, maintain a healthy weight, refrain from smoking, and reduce stress.

Mental exercise

Mind stimulation augments the connection between the brain cells. It strengthens your brain cells and may even increase the number of brain cells slightly. Mental exercises can be anything that challenges the brain without exhausting it. These include learning a new trait, assembling puzzles, playing board games, reading complicated material amongst other things.

It is imperative to keep mentally active during the later years of life when you no longer have a challenging work environment or educational activities to keep you stimulated.

Head trauma

Severe injuries to the head and future risk of dementia are interlinked, especially when the wound to the head results in unconsciousness. Moreover, older people with head injury are likely to develop complications like dementia.

Hence, protect your head by using helmets during sports, wearing a seat belt while in the car and avoiding situations that include repeated damage to the head.

Socialize

Some studies also indicate the positive effects of socializing on mental functioning. Older people who engage in social activities, regularly, exhibit less cognitive decline because social stimulation promotes new connections between brain cells. Subsequently, there is a decline in the progression of dementia.

Conclusion

Despite the lack of definitive study, lifestyle modification such as a change in dietary habits, physical activity, and mental stimulation may supplement brain health and prevent the progression or development of dementia. Majority of these changes have proven to be effective in mitigating the risks of other diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which have been linked to Alzheimer’s. Moreover, improving certain aspects of your life offers myriad benefits, in addition to enhancing the health of your brain.

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