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Published on: April 2, 2016
by Professor Kaarin Anstey for ABC News:
Dementia isn’t part of the retirement plan for most of us.
But waiting till your 60s and thinking “I don’t want to get dementia, I’d better look at my risk factors” isn’t a great plan.
You really have to be thinking about protecting your brain all through your life.
And while once it was thought dementia was a late-life disease that couldn’t be prevented, we now know that’s wrong.
The disease process can take decades, with factors such as diet and access to education impacting on your risk from the earliest stages of life.
The most important aspects of a ‘brain healthy lifestyle’ are;
Staying mentally active (doing things that make you think and learn), having good social networks and avoiding brain injuries have a big impact too.
Think of brain health as a superannuity fund
You might think “I’m ok, I’m a bit unhealthy but I’m still thinking clearly and my brain’s fine”. But changes may be happening that are increasing your risk for when you’re 70 or 80.
It’s a bit like superannuaity. You have to invest when you’re young to have enough superannuation when you’re old. You’ve got to invest and look after your brain now so you still have the wealth of your cognition when you’re old.
Yes, there are genes that make dementia more likely in some people, and there is still a lot we don’t know. And at the end of the day, some people are going to get dementia. We can’t prevent all of it.
But we do know that lifestyle is very, very important. There’s evidence a healthy lifestyle can prevent around a third of all dementia.
Because the impact of some factors can take years to accumulate, the earlier you start, the stronger the protective effect will be.
Arguably, the best time to establish healthy habits is early in childhood.
It’s never too late to protect against dementia
But it’s never too late to make a difference. Even people who already have dementia who start exercising see improvements in their function.
And people in their 70s who give up smoking have less brain shrinkage within two years compared to people the same age who kept smoking. And they show some improvements in their mental processing ability too.
The trouble is healthy brain ageing is not an intuitive thing. If you spend too much time in the sun, the ageing of your skin starts to show up with the appearance of sunspots and wrinkling. Even a child can see sunburnt skin.
With the aging brain, you can be damaging it and you’re not seeing anything. That’s the challenge.
But it’s your body, your brain and your future. And there’s a lot you can do.
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