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Published on: March 11, 2012
Put the pieces in place now to build a strategy against the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
by Lucy Ballinger for Body & Soul
Dementia is associated with old age, and as such, it’s something many of us put off thinking about until retirement.
It is an umbrella term for a number of symptoms, including memory loss and confused thinking. Some sufferers have Alzheimer’s, the most common form of the disease. Alzheimer’s Australia estimates 280,000 people currently have dementia, with the number set to hit 981,000 by 2050 as our population ages.
Although little is known about why some people suffer from dementia, scientists have discovered ways of reducing the risk of developing it.
Combating the causes
Dr Michael Valenzuela, a senior research fellow at the University of New South Wales and the author of Maintain Your Brain (HarperCollins), says high blood pressure contributes to the second most common type of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease: vascular dementia. This can be caused by a stroke, heart problems, high cholesterol or diabetes.
He says, “Given the importance of vascular disease to dementia, anything we can do for better heart health can translate to better brain health too. If you have high blood pressure in your 40s and 50s, you are two and a half times more likely to get dementia in your 60s and 70s.”
Research published last year in the British Medical Journal found eating fruit and vegetables and taking up full-time education also helps the brain stave off dementia. Jane Verity, CEO of charity Dementia Care Australia, adds, “We also need a lot of water every day.”
It is believed that studying, playing memory games or doing crosswords improves the brain’s ability to offset the symptoms of conditions such as Alzheimer’s. “The brain is like a muscle – if you don’t use it and learn new things it gets sluggish and dementia risk increases,” Valenzuela says. “It’s a case of use it or lose it. People should look for activities they haven’t tried before.”
Move it or lose it
Valenzuela believes exercise is also important in reducing the risk of developing dementia, as it gets the blood pumping around the brain, staves off vascular diseases and can help prevent diabetes, which is another risk factor for dementia.
He adds, “Physical exercise affects the brain in unique ways. It leads to the generation of new brain cells, in rats at least. In humans, researchers have found that physical exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus, the brain’s memory centre.”
Researchers have also found significant links between diabetes, depression and dementia. To combat depression, experts say it is important to have an active social life.
Verity says, “If a person is depressed, lonely and isolated it will affect their immune system and the immune system has an impact on the manifestation of dementia symptoms.”
A positive outlook
“The most important thing to prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s is that we keep focusing on staying as happy as possible, we keep having reasons to get up in the morning, knowing that we can make a difference in the world,” Verity says.
A strong social network is also a powerful ally against dementia. Recent research by the Université Victor-Segalen in Bourdeaux and the University of Michigan Center on the Demography of Ageing found people who have good friends have a lower risk of developing the disease.
Valenzuela says, “Social activity has numerous benefits. If you do mental activities with other people, it seems to have a better outcome than if you do them alone. Similarly, if you do physical activity with others, it seems to be better for the brain than doing it alone.”
How I’m preventing my own dementia
Author Sue Pieters-Hawke, 54, knows about dementia. Her mother Hazel Hawke, former wife of former prime minister Bob Hawke, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2001. Pieters-Hawke has started taking steps to reduce her risk.
She says, “The evidence and statistical averages make it clear that risk factors include a sedentary lifestyle, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and cardiovascular health risks. For me it makes sense to bring my cholesterol down, as we have high cholesterol in my family. I’m trying to do this with a mixture of exercises and using medication, the latter of which I hope is a temporary measure.
“I also watch my diet and take care of myself. I have a socially engaged life and I try to keep my brain challenged.
As a writer, I have a sedentary lifestyle, so I am seeing an exercise physiologist to work with me on blending certain types of exercise into my lifestyle. There is, for example, evidence that weight-lifting can be beneficial in making new links in the brain.
“Sometimes it feels daunting, but the incentives to make lifestyle changes are really powerful: dementia is horrible. If you can try to reduce the risk or delay the onset, then I think these things are really worth doing. Even though there are no guarantees it will reduce the risk, it is a way of breaking through the sense of powerlessness around dementia.”
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