Keeping your brain and body active, challenged, and well-nourished are three of your best defences against developing dementia
When you’re planning your well-deserved retirement, one of the last things you want to consider is the threat of being diagnosed with dementia. To a young(er) vital person, dementia is a horrifying prospect, representing not “just” cognitive decline, but also the loss of independence, and the slow erosion of your memories and even personality.
As an occupational therapist specialising in caring for the elderly, I believe we should at least be thinking about it, including doing our best to prevent it, which – cumulative research shows – is more within our reach than we ever imagined.
Mental health and illness matters
“Dementia is an umbrella term for several diseases affecting memory, other cognitive abilities and behaviour that interfere significantly with a person’s ability to maintain their activities of daily living. Although age is the strongest known risk factor for dementia, it is not a normal part of ageing”
– World Health Organisation (WHO)
As the global population ages, the incidence of dementia is increasing. There are an estimated 50 million people diagnosed with dementia worldwide, and this figure is expected to triple in the next 30 years. South Africa is no exception. According to our last census (conducted in 2011), around 2.2 million people in the country are living with some form of dementia. Additionally, academics from the University of the Free State – part of the International 10/66 Dementia Research Group’s (10/66 DRG) initiative – say that prevalence is higher here than previously thought, and that two-thirds of the people affected by dementia in the world live in low and middle-income countries.
With July being Mental Illness Awareness Month, we can see this as a timely prompt to all of us to get serious about brain-boosting and brain-protecting behaviours. You can think of it in the same way that we approach retirement savings or estate planning: The not-so-fun-but-very-necessary thing we must all do when we think about our own lives, long term.
Of course – and yes, frustratingly – we must admit that even if you follow these tips to the letter, there is no single step you can take or routine you can follow that will guarantee you won’t be affected by dementia in your later years.
Dementia (of which Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form) has a myriad of contributing factors, some of which are outside of our control – including genetics and family history. But there is also a significant body of robust peer-reviewed research that links lifestyle factors to the development of dementia. In May 2019, the WHO released their first ever guidelines on dementia prevention, focusing on these healthy lifestyle habits. And the great news is that lifestyle factors are completely within our control.
Many of the tips we offer looking after your brain are also general healthy habits, so there is no downside to adopting them. One of the most accessible and actionable pieces of advice is, that all the things you do to care for a healthy heart also applies to dementia prevention. In fact, we see up to 80% of dementia patients also show signs of heart disease or related heart conditions. If you take care of your heart, you also take care of your brain.
Back to basics
Do we even need to say it? Smoking is terrible for your health and if you smoke, try to give it up as soon as possible. Smoking can contribute to cardiovascular issues and hypertension, two other conditions highly correlated with dementia. The next priority step is to avoid heavy drinking, keeping alcohol use low to moderate.
The importance of a balanced diet is an important building block towards required nutrition levels, here we refer to a healthy heart-associated diet; plenty of vegetables, wholegrains and fruit, and avoiding refined and sugar-rich foods and saturated fats.
Then, once nourished, get your body moving. Regular aerobic exercise is good for your heart and your weight, now we know that your brain is able to follow suit, getting and staying fit.
Serious social fun
The above tips all focus on your physical health and create a solid foundation for mental health and wellness, but we can add to this by adopting some positive social habits and skills. We want to keep stimulating our brain, through learning, and by doing so, we create different neurological pathways and connections in the brain.
- Foster friendships: Staying social is highly recommended for brain health. We need our close friends and family, and we need to keep creating new relationships. Restart your neglected book club, join a social walking club, or participate in activities that create opportunities to be social.
- Routine and variability: Routine is very important to us as humans, but change is a way to stimulate your brain. Experts recommend simple things like varying your commute to work. When we drive the same way every day it is easy to “zone out”. But when you take a different route, you naturally pay more attention, you force yourself to observe again. This is about reinvigorating the sensory system.
- New skills and experiences: Learning to complete a sudoku puzzle is a fabulous novel challenge for the brain, but if you do sudoku every day, that way of thinking becomes a well-worn pathway in your brain. If you’re tech-savvy, there are several apps that offer a mix of games to keep it fresh. Lumosity and Peak are two popular choices available for both iOS and Android. New experiences needn’t cost a fortune. Stargazing, for example, is always free. Learning a third language has also been linked to keeping the brain agile.
- Feel the beat: Music is a wonderful way to stimulate the brain, in particular the right side of the brain. Joining a dance class is one way to use music itself and the acquisition of a fresh skill to keep yourself sharp.
All of the stimulation techniques we use in our person-centered, contemporary therapy for dementia patients – like art, music and dancing – also apply to the prevention of dementia and “general maintenance” for the brain. Current research suggests that they contribute both to staving off cognitive decline and slowing its progression.
Confirmation from the WHO that lifestyle plays such a huge part in dementia prevention should be seen for the empowering news that it is. Take your brain for a tune-up: eat something you’ve never tasted before. Take a painting class. Go hiking. Invest in your quality of life, for the longevity of your brain as much as for your body.