There is currently no cure for dementia, though science continues to research prevention and ways to slow down the spread of the disease. Just within the United States, approximately 5.7 million people are living with dementia.
It’s clear to see that many people are impacted greatly by this disease. As a young girl, I was one of them. You don’t have to be the person diagnosed to be impacted by the disease.
My grandfather Stanley Bondelevitch — a decorated war veteran, football coach to the likes of a young Dick Jauron, and coach to an unheard-of eight undefeated seasons, was a man I never truly met.
We were on Earth together for nine years and even stood in the same room. But he never saw me there, nor knew who I was. I celebrated at the dedication of a street named after him and at a book dedicated to him feeling entirely like an impostor. I felt like I’d never truly met this man, yet there I was standing at these events representing him.
He’d been diagnosed with dementia when I was a toddler. The years we spent together were shadowed by the fact that our visits were in nursing homes. He would smile at me, I would play my viola for him, but there was never a real familiarity there.
We’re Learning More About Dementia Prevention
A report from the Lancet Commission on dementia prevention, intervention, and care was published at the end of July 2020. It expands upon earlier work that up to a third of dementia cases could be delayed or even prevented by addressing certain lifestyle changes. If there is anything we can do to prevent dementia from robbing us of precious years with our other loved ones, it’s worth a shot.
The report can be broken down into three major categories: reducing neuropathological damage, increasing and maintaining the cognitive reserve, and activities.
1. Minimize The Risk Of Diabetes
Diabetes is a known risk factor for vascular dementia, according to Mayo Clinic. This type of dementia is caused by reduced or blocked blood flowing to the brain. In the past, we linked blocked blood flow to heart disease and strokes. Now we understand that the complexity of type 2 diabetes development can further advance this reduction of blood flow. A type 2 diabetes diagnosis could be indicative of the brain and other body tissues to use glucose and respond to insulin.
These risks can be minimized by monitoring your blood glucose, cholesterol, and blood pressure. You and your healthcare team can determine how often you need to check these based on your current health, age, and level of activity.
2. Treat Hypertension
Hypertension is a well-known cause of vascular dementia. Studies have shown that the disruption of regular blood pressure is closely related to cognitive impairment in injury. Several clinical trials have proven that blood pressure-lowering hypertension agents after injury reduced the risk of dementia or cognitive decline.
To treat high blood pressure you’ll want to get closer to the recommended below 120/80 mm Hg. You can make lifestyle changes such as eating a heart-healthy diet (low-sodium, heavy on fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean poultry and fish), getting regular physical activity (at least 2 hours and 30 minutes each week at a moderate level OR 1 hour and 15 minutes at a vigorous level), maintaining a healthy weight, and limiting the amount of alcohol you drink. Your doctor may have additional recommendations if these lifestyle changes are not enough.
3. Prevent Head Injury
Over the past 30 years, research backed by the Alzheimer’s Association has linked moderate and severe traumatic brain injury to a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia. It doesn’t matter the year of the injury, either. Professional football players’ (soccer, for us, US folks) head injuries recently gained attention from the BBC. An October 2019 study from the University of Glasgow revealed that former professional football players had an approximately three and a half times higher rate of death due to neurodegenerative disease than expected.
While all head injuries aren’t preventable (car accidents can come out of nowhere), you can mitigate your risks by wearing protective gear while participating in hands-on sports and minimizing your exposure to these activities
4. Stop Smoking
There are so many harmful chemicals involved in smoking that it is unclear to researchers exactly which ones are causing the damage. But it’s clear that the damage is there. In 14 studies done by The World’s Alzheimer’s Report 2014, smokers were found to have a significantly increased risk of dementia compared to nonsmokers. The 2017 Lancet Commission highlighted smoking as one of the nine top risk factors associated with dementia. Overall, the Alzheimer’s Society considers smoking to cause a 30-50 percent increased risk of developing dementia.
Quitting any habit is obviously easier said than done. If you ever need to commiserate about your cravings, a free telephone quit-line — 800-QUIT-NOW (800-784-8669) — provides support and counseling. I also recommend the Reddit community /r/stopsmoking/ and tracking apps that help you keep track of your progress and congratulate you on reaching milestones.
5. Reduce Air Pollution
A 2016 study in Mexico City and Manchester confirmed that magnetite from air pollution can pass into the brain. They found an abundance of magnetite in the brains of patients, and though it is a naturally occurring brain chemical, they dug further to see where the excess came from. In this study, they were able to view surface properties of the magnetite particles to prove they had been generated at high temperatures found in engines rather than natural processes. These particles were abundant in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
There are lots of actions you can take to reduce the air pollution around you. Conserve energy by carpooling, biking, or walking to your destinations. If you must drive, keep your engine properly tuned and tires inflated. When you reduce your trips, you reduce your exposure.
6. Reduce Midlife Obesity
In observational studies on the association between overweight and obese patients and dementia, Embase and Medline concluded that compared to normal weight, midlife obesity can increase the risk of dementia later in life. Their study estimated that 7.1 million Americans could be diagnosed with dementia in 2013 as a result of obesity, with another 11.3 million to follow in 2050.
In the conclusion of the study, it was determined that public health measures to reduce midlife obesity are simultaneously primary prevention measures to reduce the risk of dementia. To prevent obesity, you can start incorporating meal-tracking, weight training, and cardio regimens into your routine. Diet and exercise are major ways in which we take care of our bodies, and taking care of ourselves is really how we can best help to prevent dementia. Eat less processed foods. Eat lots of fiber, fruits, vegetables, and foods that are low on the glycemic index.
7. Treat Hearing Impairment
This one is tough because the strongest trait in people with hearing impairment is stubbornness. It’s easy to picture the grandparent who doesn’t want to address this particular medical issue because they don’t want to admit to there being a problem.
Longitudinal studies of senior communities have demonstrated that hearing impairment is associated with a 40 percent rate of accelerated cognitive decline and a substantial risk of all types of dementia. Neuroimaging also have demonstrated independent associations of hearing impairment with accelerated rates of the lateral temporal lobe and whole-brain atrophy.
8. Maintain Frequent Social Contact
Quality social contact is important for our mental health in general, and social isolation has been a long known trigger for mental illness.
A group of 10,000 London civil service department employees aged 35-50 were studied back in 1986-1988 for a baseline assessment. When followed up in 2017, they measured social contact six times within a self-reported questionnaire and were followed through electronic health records. The study concluded that a greater frequency of social contact with friends (rather than relatives) at age 60 was associated with a lower risk of developing dementia. They also found that a greater frequency of social contact was associated with a higher cognitive performance overall.
9. Attain The Highest Possible Level Of Education
Within 88 population studies, only 51 (or 58 percent) reported significant effects of lower education on risk for dementia whereas 37 (42 percent) reported no significant relationship.
It seems that a more conclusive result on the effect of education may be best evaluated in a lifespan model rather than by diploma. The desire for higher education can be reflective of a lifestyle choice to challenge your cognitive abilities. If you continue to challenge yourself intellectually, exercise different areas of your brain regularly, and continue learning about new things, you’re on the right track. You can do this with crossword or jigsaw puzzles, learning an instrument, expanding your vocabulary, or even learning new languages.
10. Maintain Frequent Exercise
Results of 11 studies showed that regular exercise can reduce the risk of dementia by about 30 percent, and 45 percent for Alzheimer’s disease in particular. One study noted that of five behaviors assessed (regular exercise, not smoking, moderating alcohol intake, maintaining healthy BMI, and maintaining a healthy diet) exercise had the greatest effect in terms of reducing the risk of dementia. Those who followed four or five of these behaviors, however, were up to 60 percent less likely to develop dementia.
It’s definitely more about balancing healthy habits than honing in on one specific area. A lot of these lifestyle changes also play into each other. Regular exercise can help to minimize your risk of diabetes, reduce hypertension, and reduce obesity – all of which we’ve already discussed can aid in preventing dementia. The Mayo Clinic recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week (or a combination), as well as strength training exercises for all major muscle groups at least two times a week.
11. Reduce the Occurrence of Depression
Obviously, this one is much easier said than done. Depression does take a toll on your well-being. When dealing with depressive episodes it’s easy to stop taking care of yourself in general, and depression requires a good deal of self-care. Attending therapy, taking medication as prescribed, getting enough sleep, and creating a healthy space for yourself are important self-care factors that help reduce the recurrence of depressive episodes.
Research specifically links symptoms of depression to a more rapid decline in thinking and memory skills. Though while finding an association, they specifically stated it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
12. Avoid Excessive Alcohol
There may be a link between alcohol and dementia. Alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) is a brain disorder caused by regularly drinking too much alcohol, and covers several different conditions including alcoholic dementia. While not actually dementia (like how a peanut is not a nut, but a legume), it shares similar symptoms like poor decision-making/judgment/risk assessment, problems with impulsivity, difficulty controlling emotions, problems with attention, slower reasoning, lack of sensitivity to the feelings of others, and socially inappropriate behavior.
Moderate alcohol use for healthy adults generally means up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men – about 12 fluid ounces of beer, five fluid ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. Drink responsibly, and not to excess.
The Changes You Need To Make
There may not have been anything that could have prevented my grandfather’s dementia diagnosis. The research was not there at the time. As we move forward and learn more, it’s possible that we can prevent ourselves and others from going down the same path.
In general, take care of yourself. Listen to your body. Treat your symptoms – physical and mental – as they arise. Exercise, socialize, eat foods that nourish you. Don’t overeat or drink too much. Breath in fresh, clean air. Do what you can to make yourself happy, because when you’re happy, you’ll be able to give your body what it deserves.