Dementia is a serious concern for aging Americans, but there are things that seniors can do to help stave off symptoms of mental decline—starting with living a healthy lifestyle.
What Is Dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term for the decline of mental ability to the point where it interferes with daily life. Dementia is not a disease itself, but instead refers to a group of diseases that affect the brain. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s, a condition from which more than five million Americans suffer; Alzheimer’s represents between 60% to 80% of all dementia cases.
The second most common form of dementia is vascular dementia, which occurs after a stroke. Research suggests that a healthy diet and exercise are great for the brain and can help offset the causes and symptoms of dementia. The brain, just like the heart, is full of blood cells—keeping these blood cells healthy is the key to slowing down mental decline.
Maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol
Bad cholesterol and unhealthy blood pressure levels are leading causes of vascular disease and stroke. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can cause problems by damaging and narrowing the blood vessels in your brain, which can lead to vascular dementia. This can affect memory, thinking, or language skills. It is also most commonly caused by the effects of a stroke.
It is important to get regular checkups with a doctor, ask for advice on maintaining healthy levels, and monitoring your blood pressure and cholesterol regularly.
Adopt a healthy diet
What you eat has a tremendous impact on your body and brain, and eating foods with lower saturated fat is key in maintaining a healthy diet. Two diets recommended for heart disease may also reduce the risk of dementia: the Mediterranean Diet, based on the traditional diets of people living near the Mediterranean Sea, consists of fruits, nuts and grains, and replaces red meats with fish and chicken. It also relies on olive oil as a healthy fat instead of unhealthy fats such as butter.
The second, the DASH diet, or the Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension diet, starts with dividing food into 10 healthy food groups and five food groups that should be avoided. The 10 healthy food groups are green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, berries, fish, whole grains, poultry, olive oil and—believe it or not—wine. The five unhealthy food groups are butter, cheese, red meats, sweets and fried food.
Regular exercise is the key to maintaining a healthy weight as well as good blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Obesity not only increases your risk for developing dementia, but also puts you at risk for other health complications including heart disease and diabetes.
Working out helps blood flow to the brain, keeping it healthy and active. Exercise does not have to be strenuous: walking and even dancing can count exercise, and anything that keeps your heart rate up should work. Just as with dieting, what is good for the heart is often good for the brain.
Limit alcohol consumption
As mentioned earlier, wine can be incorporated into a healthy lifestyle, and there is some evidence that beer may help prevent Alzheimer’s. There is a new study in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry that claims a compound commonly found in beer hops has an antioxidant property which can help protect brain cells. According to this study, these compounds can protect brain cells from oxidation, which contributes to the development of neurodegenerative diseases.
However, it is still important to remember that alcohol should be limited to just one or two glasses a day. The positive effects of these beverages on the body are negated by excessive alcohol consumption, which can lead to higher blood pressure and heart disease. Moderation is key when alcohol is part of the routine.
Improve sleep health
Getting a good night’s rest may also been an important way to help prevent dementia. Studies have shown a link between lack of a solid sleep routine and vulnerability to Alzheimer’s disease; a common symptom of Alzheimer’s and dementia is lack of deep sleep. For years, researchers thought this was because Alzheimer’s destroys the part of the brain that regulates sleep. However, new evidence suggests that deep sleep removes toxins in the brain and that these toxins, if still present, lead to brain deterioration.
Keep your head safe
Since dementia is a disease of the brain, it is very important to keep the source healthy. Always wear a seat belt when riding or driving a car, even if it’s just down the street, and look both ways before crossing the street. Falls are also the most common cause of traumatic brain injury, and it poses an especially serious risk for the elderly. Traumatic brain injuries can have lingering effects, and some can lead to Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), often associated with NFL players or boxers, and it is caused by repeated blows to the head. Researchers are just starting to learn the long-term effects of CTE, but so far, the symptoms are very similar to that of Alzheimer’s. It can cause problems with thinking and memory, and may cause depression and aggression.
Stay mentally active
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the most effective way to fight dementia. Eating right and exercising are crucial, but just as crucial is maintaining a healthy mental lifestyle—that means exercising your brain by taking classes online, at a college, senior center or assisted living community. It also means being a social person—attend events and dances, reconnect with old friends and make new friends to help keep your brain healthy.
Even just adopting a daily routine and sticking to it keeps the brain focused and working to the best of its abilities. Remember that dementia is not an unavoidable part of aging, and the best way to prevent brain decline is by living a safe, active and healthy life.