Every six minutes. The one thing we might dread more than cancer or physical disability is the thought of losing our memory. Dementia is the umbrella term for a number of conditions associated with memory loss and cognitive decline. It is a global problem affecting more than 46 million people. In Australia, a new diagnosis is made every six minutes and there are more than 350,000 Australians living with dementia.
It’s not just a genetic risk
In 2011, Barnes and Yaffe identified seven potentially modifiable risk factors that even if partially addressed have the potential to halve the projected prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease. The seven smoking guns include smoking, lack of physical activity, midlife hypertension, midlife depression, diabetes, obesity and low academic achievement.
While there can be no guarantee that following a brain-healthy lifestyle will prevent dementia, there is increasing evidence it can help to maintain normal cognition and potentially delay the onset of symptoms by a number of years.
Findings from the landmark FINGER study showed how addressing multiple risk factors for dementia can assist in maintaining memory, thinking skills and mental speed of processing.
Tips to help minimise your potential risk of dementia
Our choice of food influences our mood, memory and cognition. The MIND diet devised by Martha Clare Morris and her team at Rush University, Chicago, identified 10 foods based on scientific research that support better cognitive function and five to eat less of. Initial studies, which require confirmation, suggest that following this diet is associated with a reduction of risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 53 per cent – now that’s encouraging!
The single most effective management for dementia prevention is the one that is readily available to everyone and doesn’t have to cost a cent. Thirty minutes of daily aerobic exercise, the huffy puffy sort that gets up a bit of a sweat, primes the brain for better performance, cognition and mood. Even if you hate exercise, going for a daily walk will help keep your brain in good shape.
The worst thing we can do is to stay sitting for too long, so stand up for better cognition and just move it!
Lack of sleep is well recognised as a cause of daily fatigue, poor concentration, reduced mental performance and irritability. It is also associated with an elevated risk of cognitive decline. Getting seven-to-eight hours of good-quality uninterrupted sleep every night, topped up if needed with a power nap during the day, is what counts.
Stress less and laugh more
Long-term chronic stress is associated with elevated cortisol levels, brain inflammation, depression and loss of brain volume. Practising some form of daily stress reliever whether as exercise, being in a green space, practising mindfulness, tai chi or yoga, or sharing a laugh, can help alleviate stress and enhance attention, creativity and mental wellbeing.
Stretch that mental muscle
Our brain’s plasticity diminishes with age, but is not lost. Look for opportunities to learn something new, especially something creative such as painting or dancing that confers a degree of neuroprotection. Learning a new musical instrument helps prevent decay in speech listening skills and boosts comprehension. Online or offline, the main thing about cognitive training is to have fun!
Stay in touch
Loneliness is a killer and has been shown to alter brain structure, making us more anti-social, and diminishes physical and cognitive wellbeing. Staying connected with others, preferably face-to-face, is essential to better brain health. Sign up as a volunteer or join a group-based activity. Singing boosts mood, social connectedness, working memory and general cognition.
Manage your general health
Going for a regular health check-up is a great way to help keep a healthy weight, normal blood pressure and blood sugar. Seek help if you are struggling with sleep disturbance, anxiety or low mood. And if you need an extra reason to quit the smokes – do it to retain your brain.
Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner, speaker and author of the bestselling book Future Brain: The 12 Keys To Create Your High Performance Brain (Wiley). She specialises in brain health and high-performance thinking. To find out more visit www.drjennybrockis.com