How to effectively reduce your dementia risk

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In a new study from Rush University, researchers found dementia and memory loss do not have to be part of aging. Good habits can help stave off damage to our brains.

The study is aimed at primary care physicians and general neurologists, in hopes that they will translate its recommendations into toolkits for care teams to use with patients.

However, there are valuable takeaways for individuals as well.

As the population ages, dementia is on track to triple by 2060, Holland says, and as many as 40% of dementia cases may be associated with modifiable risk factors.

Anyone, of any age, can and should follow these suggestions, but the team says that their work group identified 45 as the age when people should begin in earnest to take steps to head off cognitive decline.

Some strong risk factors for dementia, like hypertension, come to the fore in middle age, and Alzheimer’s disease, for example, is a “silent” disease process that can begin decades before symptoms appear.

The new study concludes that more research is needed to “confirm and validate” the group’s consensus recommendations, and research on many of these lifestyle interventions is underway.

The team looked at the most pertinent evidence from research, most of it gathered in the past five years, on risk factors for cognitive decline, as well as approaches that might slow it down.

The researchers came to a consensus on 11 recommendations and strategies they would suggest across these six topics:

Neurovascular risk management: Heart health and brain health “go hand in hand,” according to the study.

Specifically, making lifestyle changes to bring down high blood pressure (a systolic measure of more than 130), and blood sugar levels of more than 7% (which indicates diabetes), will help those at risk for hypertension-related dementia.

Physical activity: Evidence abounds that increased physical activity can decrease the risk of cognitive decline.

The eventual goal is a minimum of 30 minutes a day, five days a week, but everyone is starting from a different point.

An individual plan for how to get more exercise, based on the needs and capabilities of each person, is a must.

Sleep: Studies have shown an association between cognitive impairment and sleep disturbances—poor sleep quality (less than seven to eight hours in a 24-hour period), sleep apnea, excessive daytime napping.

Good sleep may help prevent a number of neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

Nutrition: A healthy diet may not only help build cognitive resilience, it also addresses heart-related risk factors for dementia, like hypertension and diabetes.

The team recommends specific diets—the Mediterranean, DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), and especially the MIND (Mediterranean and DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet, developed at Rush.

Social isolation: The inability to interact regularly with other people, which is social isolation, and loneliness, or unhappiness about being alone, are associated with impaired cognitive performance, cognitive decline, and an accelerated progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

They can also affect physical health and lead to depression. These situations and feelings need to be assessed and addressed by a physician.

Cognitive stimulation: Limited evidence suggests that increased brainwork—education, curiosity and other challenging mental activity undertaken over a lifetime—may stimulate or enhance “cognitive reserve,” the brain’s ability to compensate for insults or cognitive decline.

The team suggests several activities, including reading or listening to news or other nonfiction material, playing strategy games, participating in visual or performance arts, and spending time in nature.

Dementia is something of an umbrella term. It takes in conditions caused by a number of pathological processes. Some of those may be heritable, at least to an extent; others may have environmental causes.

To fight the disease, the diet has long been thought to be a piece of the puzzle.

All these lifestyle recommendations complete the puzzle, focusing on taking care of yourself and tracking your health and wellness with support from your physician.

If you care about dementia risk, please read studies about eye surgery that may reduce dementia risk, and antioxidants that may protect you from dementia.

For more information about brain health, please see recent studies about how to reduce frailty to lower dementia, and results showing this diet reduces your risk of cognitive impairment, dementia.

The study is published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia, and was conducted by Thomas M Holland et al.

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