Your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia doubles every five years after your 65th birthday. Dementia affects an estimated one in 14 people over 65, but that number jumps to one in six over the age of 80.
Today, more than five million Americans live with dementia, but that figure is expected to increase to more than 28 million in the next few decades. Females are disproportionately affected. According to Alzheimers.net, “one out of six women over the age of 60 will develop the disease compared to one out of 11 men.” The Alzheimer’s Association relates that a woman in her 60s is twice as likely to develop dementia than breast cancer.
Alzheimer’s and other dementias are complex diseases. There is no one single cause. While we don’t know what exactly causes the brain changes that lead to dementia, scientists have identified certain risk factors. Some of them, like your age, genes, sex, or ethnicity are out of your control. However, there are things you can do to reduce your risk of developing dementia, and mid-life is a great time to start taking those steps.
The brain changes that cause dementia can start years or even decades before symptoms develop. According to Harvard Health, “many things may contribute to the development of symptoms, such as inflammation in the brain, vascular risk factors, and lifestyle.” While there is no way to prevent all types of dementia (researches are still figuring out how it develops), you can reduce your chance of developing dementia by living a healthy lifestyle.
Disclaimer: The information found on Seasons is intended for informational and educational purposes only and not for the purpose of rendering medical advice. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions regarding a medical condition.
Be physically active
Living a sedentary lifestyle is risky business. Some people 60 and up spend nine hours or more sitting every day. Sit less and move more by avoiding sitting in front of the TV or computer for long periods of time, taking the stairs whenever possible, and taking up an active hobby like gardening.
According to Alzheimer’s Research UK, “Research has found that people who are physically active have a lower risk of memory and thinking problems. Staying physically active also reduces the risk of other health conditions like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, which are known risk factors for dementia.” In Dementia: Reducing your risk, the Alzheimer’s Society advises that “Regular physical activity will not only reduce your risk of dementia, but it’s also good for your mental wellbeing, heart, circulation, and weight.”
Finding physical activities that you actually enjoy doing will help make health a habit. Start slowly. Both aerobic exercise and strength training are important. Aerobic exercise can include walking, jogging, running, swimming, riding a bike, water aerobics, tennis and even mowing the yard. Incorporate resistance activities that require strength and work your muscles at least two days each week.
Research from the University College London found that a high body mass index (BMI) is associated with an increased risk of dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, “Eating a healthy, balanced diet may reduce your risk of dementia, as well as other conditions including cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, stroke and heart disease.”
A healthy diet consists of five portions of fruits and veggies a day, two servings of omega-3 rich fish like salmon a week, and whole grains in place of white starches. Avoid added sugar by limiting your intake of soda, bread, cookies, candy, ice cream, and cake. Sugar masquerades under many aliases on the labels of processed foods, most commonly as corn-derived high fructose corn syrup.
While you’re lurking the label for sugar, check for salt too. The Alzheimer’s Society advises that “Too much salt increases blood pressure and the risk of developing dementia.” Also, cut down on saturated fats, including red meat and butter. Avoiding saturated fats is not only good for your heart, but evidence shows that a high intake of saturated fat doubles your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Don’t forget to hydrate! The Alzheimer’s Society recommends drinking six to eight glasses of fluid a day. They don’t all have to be water. This can include lower-fat milk and sugar-free drinks like tea and coffee.
Don’t think of it as a diet, as that can lead to a deprivation mindset as opposed to a “giving my body the nutrients it needs instead of junk” mindset. Every meal is an opportunity. If you have a donut–don’t beat yourself up–just try to make healthier choices next time. Some people are used to dieting and feel comfortable within those confines. If that’s the case, try the Mediterranean diet, which is based on the principles of healthy eating above.
There’s evidence that smoking increases your risk of dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Smoking makes your arteries narrow, which raises your blood pressure. High blood pressure increases your risk of dementia, as well as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and several cancers. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, “Smoking does a lot of harm to the circulation of blood around the body, including the blood vessels in the brain, as well as the heart and lungs.”
If Alzheimer’s is the “long goodbye” then smoking is slow suicide. It’s never too late to stop smoking. Wouldn’t it be nice if just knowing these facts would make your brain say, “Hey, this isn’t a good idea. I’m going to stop.”? With any other addiction, like booze or opioids, you’d go to rehab and get help from others.
Improve your chances of staying healthy in later life by getting expert help. Plan your attack from all angles: talk with your doctor and pharmacist; sign up for local service; join online support groups like the Smokefree Quit Smoking Support Group; and read books, like “Allen Carr’s Easyway to Stop Smoking.” The NHS offers more tips, including telling people you’re quitting, changing your routine, taking up some form of physical activity, and thinking positively.
Drink less alcohol
According to the NHS, “drinking excessive amounts of alcohol increases your risk of stroke, heart disease, and some cancers, as well as damaging the nervous system, including the brain.” The Alzheimer’s Society claims that “Drinking too much alcohol increases your risk of developing dementia.” To avoid alcohol-related brain damage, aim to drink no more than 14 units per week, spread out over a few days at least. For reference, a pint of 4% ABV beer contains two units.
Exercise your mind
Although the reason is unclear, a number of studies indicate that “maintaining strong social connections and keeping mentally active as we age might lower the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s.” Experts think it “may be due to direct mechanisms through which social and mental stimulation strengthen connections between nerve cells in the brain.”
Use it or lose it, as they say. Research suggests “that regularly challenging yourself mentally seems to build up the brain’s ability to cope with disease.” However, it’s unclear which activities are mentally beneficial, so the best thing to do is find a game your brain likes to play so you’ll do it regularly.
Challenge your brain by reading, playing crosswords, singing, playing an instrument, taking a class, learning a language, doing puzzles, playing card or board games, or even writing. “Brain games” that are offered online have not yet been proven to help, but they sure can’t hurt. Games can also provide you with the opportunity to be social. Gather up your pals for a weekly trivia night.
“Research has linked social isolation to a higher risk of dementia,” according to the Alzheimer’s Society, although the reason is still unknown. The Alzheimer’s Society goes on to say that “Talking and communicating with other people may also help to reduce your risk of dementia.” Keep in touch with friends and family. Join a club, volunteer, and/or be active in the community.
Get a good night’s sleep
Take control of your health
According to the New York Times New Old Age blog, “Depression is associated with subsequent vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.” Conversely, Alzheimer’s causes depression. If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, seek help early and talk with your doctor.
Alzheimer’s Research UK purports that “Some research has found that identifying and treating high blood pressure in midlife may reduce the risk of dementia.” So, stay on top of your blood pressure levels by visiting a doctor regularly, using those blood pressure measuring machines at the pharmacy, or even testing it at home.
Did you know that people with moderate to severe hearing loss are up to five times as likely to develop dementia? Beltone, the popular hearing aid company, states that “Early identification and treatment of a potential hearing loss helps minimize risks later in life.” So be sure to get your hearing checked on an annual basis.
Wondering if it’s too late? See our 10 Symptoms That Could Be Early Signs Of Dementia and talk with your physician.