Published on: October 16, 2016
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
Many people think of dementia as a disease that affects seniors, and while it is true that diagnosis of dementia is most common in older adults, it is also true that the disease begins its long course of destruction in the brain decades before any symptoms are even noticed.
There is much we still don’t know about dementia but the vast majority of cases are thought to be the result of complex interactions among multiple factors. Some of the known risk factors such as age or genetics cannot be changed, but research to date suggests that other factors can often be modified to decrease risk.
Most of the modifiable risk factors are those consistent with a healthy lifestyle and, given the lengthy time span over which dementia develops, the sooner you get started making healthy choices, the better.
Accordingly, millennials should take note – there is much you can and should be doing now to help keep your brain healthy.
Don’t wait until you’re older to take action, when damage might already be well underway.
Be Proactive Early to Prevent Cognitive Decline and Dementia
Get Regular Physical Activity
The strong relationship between physical activity and cognitive performance has been well established through more than 30 years of research. Be sure to engage regularly in cardiovascular exercise that elevates your heart rate so that you get your blood flowing such as running, spinning, and swimming.
Include some weight or resistance training since a combination of aerobic exercise and strength training is best for your body and brain. Incorporating activities that develop balance and coordination – such as yoga, Pilates, tai chi, or simply workouts with balance balls – can help you avoid falls as you get older (thus avoiding head injuries that are associated with an increased risk of dementia).
Manage Vascular Risk Factors
Address any vascular risk factors you have, with help from your doctor if necessary. It just makes sense – and research confirms – that anything that negatively impacts circulation through your blood vessels will affect your brain. Although your brain is only about 2 percent of your total body weight, it gets 15 to 20 percent of your body’s blood supply. Clearly, the reliable and steady flow of blood to your brain is critical for optimal functioning.
Specifically: If you smoke, stop. Smokers are twice as likely to develop dementia than non-smokers. When you stop smoking, your brain experiences improved circulation almost immediately, regardless of your age.
Maintain a healthy body weight. People who are overweight or obese have increased risk of dementia.
If you have diabetes or hypertension, follow any diet/exercise advice from your doctor to manage your condition through a healthy lifestyle, and if those efforts are not sufficient, then take any medication(s) prescribed to ensure your condition is managed.
Eat a Healthy Diet
Research to date suggests that food that is good for your heart is also good for your brain, so follow these broad, heart-healthy eating principles: (1) eat lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains; and (2) limit your intake of sugar and saturated fats. The Alzheimer’s Association describes two specific diets that have been studied and found to be potentially beneficial, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and the Mediterranean diet (although they are careful to note that “no one diet is best”).
DASH emphasizes vegetables, fruits and fat-free or low-fat dairy products; includes whole grains, fish, poultry, beans, seeds, nuts, and vegetable oils; and limits sodium, sweets, sugary beverages, and red meats while a Mediterranean diet includes relatively little red meat and emphasizes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish, and nuts, olive oil and other healthy fats.
Participate in Mentally and Socially Stimulating Activities
Multiple studies suggest that staying mentally active and having strong social connections may lower the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Implementing this brain-healthy strategy should be fun! You could find a new hobby, learn to play a musical instrument, learn a new language, join a professional networking group and/or book club discussion, go out with friends, or host a dinner party. The options are endless, so you should easily be able to find something appealing to do in your spare time that engages you mentally and socially.
Manage Your Stress
Chronic or severe stress is known to have a negative impact on the brain – increasing your risk of dementia, in part because of the resulting shrinkage of your hippocampus (a key part of the brain for memory). Different strategies work for different people when it comes to stress reduction. For many people it will involve >>
learning to say no to some things so that your “to do” list is realistic. For others, it may involve adding new activities that bring joy such as engaging in a creative pursuit or walking your dog in the woods, or perhaps new activities that relieve pent-up anger, anxiety or frustration such as going for a jog, writing in a journal, meditating, or taking a yoga class.
Everyone can benefit from incorporating some simple, quick stress-relieving tools into their day that provide immediate relief, such as simply pausing to focus on your breathing periodically throughout the day, practicing letting go when something fires you up, or taking a soothing bath before bed.
Millennials Motivated to Stay Healthy as They Age
With so much potential for prevention of dementia, it’s great news that millennials seem likely to take advantage of the knowledge that they can take steps NECESSARY to protect their brain as they age.
In 2014, the Nielsen and Natural Marketing Institute published a research report titled “Millennials are Seeking the Fountain of Youth Through Healthy Aging.” The report shares that millennials (18-36 years old, according to the definition they used for this research) “are taking personal interest in their health and are increasingly driving sales in health care categories.”
Motivation to stay healthy is not just a trend with millennials. The same study also examined the attitudes of all adults (18+ years) and found that 75 percent of all American adults say “they are taking more personal responsibility for their health today compared to 10 years ago, so as not to have to rely on others later in life.”
It’s Never too Late to Take Action for Your Brain Health
While this article is intended to specifically urge millennials to be proactive about their brain health early, it is important to emphasize that it’s never too late to begin making healthy lifestyle choices to potentially prevent or delay cognitive decline (so older people should heed the lifestyle advice as well!).
And, with “multi-factoral” conditions such as dementia, “a small reduction in multiple risk factors can substantially decrease overall risk,” according to Alina Solomon et al. in their article “Advances in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia” published in March 2014 in the Journal of Internal Medicine. Be sure to address all of the risk factors that apply to you, whatever your age, so that you maximize the impact of your efforts.
Impact of Modifiable Risk Factors on Dementia
One study estimates that up to half of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) cases worldwide are potentially attributable to seven modifiable risk factors (diabetes, midlife hypertension, midlife obesity, smoking, depression, cognitive inactivity or low educational attainment, and physical inactivity). The authors of “The projected effect of risk factor reduction on Alzheimer’s disease prevalence” in The Lancet Neurology, September 2011, predict that a 10% to 25% reduction in all seven factors could potentially prevent up to three million AD cases worldwide.
UK research “Lifestyle linked to changes in brain ageing” published by Age UK on December 15, 2014 revealed that about 75% of cognitive decline can be accounted for by lifestyle and other environmental factors such as level of education. The lifestyle factors that they found decreased the risk of dementia included regular physical exercise, eating a Mediterranean diet, not smoking, drinking alcohol in moderation, and preventing /treating diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.
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