The article is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.
Are you struggling with dementia matters in your family, friend group, or personally? You’re not alone. A few million adults in the US alone have some form of dementia. And as the average age of our population continues to increase, so does the number of dementia cases.
Dementia is usually associated with memory loss, confusion, forgetfulness, and cognitive decline. People close to someone with Alzheimer’s disease will describe it as watching someone they knew so well mentally fade away. It can be a very scary disease to witness.
The question is: why is this happening, and what can we do about it? Well, there is a significant amount of research being poured into these questions. And while answers are not yet conclusive, there are promising signs that there is something we can do to help lower our risk of developing it. And it comes down to changing our lifestyle habits, improving our physical health, and using our brains more.
What Is Dementia?
Dementia is a group of different conditions characterized by damage to brain cells, which typically cause memory loss and impaired cognitive function. Individuals with dementia struggle to make judgements, follow through on basic tasks, and maintain social connections.
Dementia primarily affects individuals in older age (60+), but early-onset dementia is also possible. The most common form that you’re likely familiar with is Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, dementia affects over 3 million people in the US alone. These are chronic conditions that often last for years.
And while they can’t be cured, symptoms can be treated with medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes. There is also promising evidence to suggest we can slow or even stop the onset of dementia with certain lifestyle habits and brain activities.
Most Common Types of Dementia
There are five major types of dementia, according to the National Institute on Aging. These include:
- Alzheimer’s disease. Common in older adults over 60. Alzheimer’s is caused by changes in the brain, including abnormal buildups of proteins.
- Frontotemporal dementia. Rare form of dementia, seen primarily in individuals under 60. Caused by abnormal amounts of certain proteins in the brain.
- Lewy body dementia. Caused by abnormal deposits of proteins called Lewy bodies.
- Vascular dementia. Caused by conditions that interrupt the flow of oxygen to the brain, or damage to blood vessels.
- Mixed dementia. The presence of two or more forms of dementia.
Causes And Symptoms of Dementia
Dementia is caused by damage to brain cells and other changes to cognitive functions. But the causes of specific brain changes on this cellular level are still unknown. A rare number of individuals may develop dementia due to genetic mutations, and some may develop it from other conditions like Huntington’s Disease.
Much research is pointing to certain lifestyle factors as being potential risks of developing dementia in older age. There is still no evidence that certain lifestyle factors can be pointed to as undoubtedly causing dementia, but promising studies are showing that three major lifestyle factors may prevent dementia and cognitive decline: physical activity, healthy blood pressure, and building new connections in the brain.
Symptoms of Dementia
Here are many of the various symptoms found in dementia. Not all of them will present in every form of dementia.
- Impulsive behaviors
- Memory loss
- Difficulty paying bills or handling money
- Repeating the same questions and phrases
- Wandering and getting easily disoriented or lost in familiar places
- Inability to make sound judgements or use reason
- Feeling frequently confused
- Difficulty expressing thoughts, reading and writing, or holding conversations
- Difficulty with fluid movements; being off-balance or falling
Lifestyle Risk Factors for Dementia
There are various “risk factors” for dementia, or things that may increase your risk of developing a form of dementia. Some fixed risk factors include things like genetic makeup, your ethnicity, and even your gender. But lifestyle risk factors are the things we have control of. These things might include our diets, our level of physical activity, and how much we learn and challenge our minds.
While many scientific studies into the lifestyle risk factors of dementia have not yet produced conclusive results, there are many promising signs that we do have some agency in preventing cognitive decline. It comes down to healthy living habits we can all adopt. Want to know what they are? Read on!
Healthy Living: Reducing Your Risk of Dementia
Studies are showing evidence that we can make lifestyle changes to help delay or prevent dementia in older age. One interesting find from multiple autopsy studies is that up to 80% of individuals assessed that had cardiovascular disease also had Alzheimer’s disease.
Cardiovascular diseases may greatly increase our risk of developing dementia.
So if we manage our cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and heart health, we can set ourselves up for success.
It also seems as though lack of social connections and head injuries may put individuals at higher risk of developing dementia. Fostering a strong support system amongst your family, friends, and mental health professionals is important for neural synapses.
BetterHelp has some great articles, tips and advice on Dementia, especially if you or
someone you love is struggling with a dementia-related matter.
Now, let’s move on to some lifestyle habits we can focus on to maintain good health and ward off cognitive decline.
Get Good Quality Sleep
Deep, consistent sleep is essential to our body’s restoration and immunity processes. On a physiological and neurological level, healing and restoration cannot be optimized unless we fully enter the deep sleep stages (3 and 4). A chronic lack of sleep actually does harm to our brain cells.
For the cycles of sleep to operate normally, we should be aiming for 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep. To help promote deep sleep, try stretching for 5 minutes before bed, and make sure to put down the screens at least 30 minutes before sleeping. Sleep aids like melatonin supplements may help as well if you struggle with insomnia.
According to the American Sleep Association, 50-70 million American adults suffer from a sleep disorder. Be patient and consistent, and soon you’ll be sleeping soundly once again. Here is how to do it.
Get Regular Aerobic Exercise
Our cardiovascular health might play a key role in the onset of dementia. Many types of dementia are linked to damaged blood vessels in the brain or an inability for oxygen to properly reach the brain, like vascular dementia.
More and more evidence is speaking to the preventative effects of regular aerobic exercise. Strengthening our heart, maintaining a healthy weight, and lowering cholesterol are the benefits produced by regular physical activity. These benefits may contribute to preventing dementia in later life, and the earlier we begin the better.
You can get aerobic exercise in whichever form you’ll enjoy and stick to. You can go for bike rides, runs, swims, use elliptical or rowing machines, or really any exercise that keeps you moving and your heart rate elevated.
Is it possible to work all the muscles in your body in 30 minutes? Try a training plan, which will help you strengthen your whole body. And moreover, you will enjoy it.
Eat Nutritious, Low-Sugar Foods
Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, or glucose, is found to help prevent conditions like diabetes, which may cause things such as dementia, heart disease, and stroke. Getting physical exercise can help keep blood sugar levels down, but perhaps the best way is by eating a clean, nutritious diet.
Focus on consuming foods that don’t have added sugars.
A good rule of thumb is to eat whole foods, or foods that are not processed. Go for nuts and seeds, grains, vegetables and fruits, lean meats, and seafood. Limited dairy, especially low-fat dairies and plain Greek yogurt, is fine too.
To help you stay healthy for years to come, we give you a short list of superfood trends and benefits that are making their mark on 2018.
Cut Out Smoking and Reduce Alcohol
If you regularly smoke tobacco, your cardiovascular health will be negatively affected. Thus, increasing your risk of developing conditions that may lead to dementia. If possible, cut out all smoking as soon as possible to prevent the risk of heart attack, stroke, and lung disease.
Overconsumption of alcohol can also be damaging to cognitive function and other areas of the body.
Alcohol can also worsen pre-existing conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and memory loss.
Exacerbating these conditions may increase your risk of dementia. If possible moderate your alcohol consumption to a max of two drinks a day for men, and one drink a day for women, according to the NIAAA. But no alcohol is the healthiest choice.
Challenge Your Brain and Keep It Active
Keeping your brain moving, working, and challenged might possibly reduce your risk of dementia, as well as treat the symptoms of it. It’s not fully known why learning new things, playing brain games, and making new mental connections reduces the effects of Alzheimer’s.
But scientists think it might be due to the fact that challenging our minds encourages new neural connections (neuroplasticity) in the brain, helping reverse or prevent brain cell damage.
There are so many ways to stimulate our brains. Play puzzles, brain game apps, or learn a new language. You can take a class, jot down notes on a topic you find interesting, or even forge social connections with new people.
Control Your Blood Pressure
A significant 2017 study conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, And Medicine highlighted high blood pressure as one of the key lifestyle risk factors that may contribute to dementia. High blood pressure is directly correlated with a number of conditions that may cause dementia, such as various cardiovascular diseases.
It is possible to maintain a healthy blood pressure through a variety of different healthy habits.
To lower your blood pressure, you can:
- Manage your stress, especially chronic stress.
- Avoid high-sodium foods and highly processed red meats, which can raise your blood pressure and cause inflammation.
- Limit your alcohol consumption.
- Quit smoking and consuming tobacco.
- Exercise regularly to improve your cardiovascular health and lose excess fat. Obesity is a risk factor for high blood pressure and heart disease.
The looming threat of dementia as we age can feel quite scary. Most of us know at least one person who has been negatively affected by Alzheimer’s disease. There is still so much we have yet to learn about this group of cognitive conditions and what causes them, but the science is increasingly pointing towards the fact that we have some control over how at risk we are for developing dementia.
By making some lifestyle changes as early on in life as we can, we can likely lower our risk of Alzheimer’s and the like. If you have to focus on incorporating three major healthy habits, it would be getting regular aerobic exercise in, maintaining a healthy blood pressure, and putting our brains to work by learning new things.