There are over 400 forms of dementia – the most common is Alzheimer’s disease, making up 60-70% of all dementia cases – and there are roughly 6 million people living with some form of it in the US today. That number is expected to grow exponentially as our population ages.
It can be difficult for younger folks to care about dementia, or at least be concerned about it. Dementia creeps up on you, and unlike other diseases and conditions, by the time you have a real problem, you aren’t capable of weighing in on your own treatment plan. When diagnosed with other lifestyle-type diseases, like cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, you generally have the faculties available to weigh in, but with dementia, you are relying on others (sometimes fully) to get the care you need. And by then, more often than not, that care is more focused on quality of life while you wait for the inevitable end.
Four Fear Factors for Dementia
It’s not hard to fear dementia. Short-term memory loss is one of the early signs—people start repeating themselves in conversations, forgetting what they already said. You might start acting a little different, maybe becoming more withdrawn and more easily confused. But it’s only the beginning. Your brain cells start losing their ability to communicate with each other, then they begin dying. You stop being able to pay bills and take care of your own hygiene—you must be cared for.
Here are four good reasons to go way out of your way to avoid this disease:
1. Genetics count. With the explosive popularity of genetic testing kits now available seemingly everywhere, for many, the #1 fear comes in the form of this key risk factor. There are several genes that could impact your risk for each form- like APOE for Alzheimer’s. And, as with most everything “gene”, whether or not your genes play a role in your susceptibility of dementia varies depending on if those genes are “on” or “off”.
2. There is no cure. As the disease progresses, brain cells become impaired, nervous system connections and pathways are interrupted, and eventually brain cells begin to die off. Most current treatments are aimed at managing symptoms for as long as possible. You can’t pop a pill for this.
3. It will eventually kill you. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. (fifth if you are already over 65), and those stats are growing. Once you receive a diagnosis, you have about four to eight years to live (on average), and they won’t likely be a walk in the park. When considering all forms, dementia is the 3rd leading cause of death in the US.
4. Diet and lifestyle has a huge effect. Metabolic issues correlated with dementia risk and mental deterioration go hand in hand with a high-carb, nutrient-deficient diet, poor sleep, and a lack of physical exercise and direct human contact. Contributing factors include: obesity, insulin resistance/diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure, and reduced cerebral blood flow, to name just a few.
And therein lies the good news. There are lifestyle changes that can reduce your dementia risk and directly contribute to how soon and how badly dementia might affect you.
Strategies for Staving Off Cognitive Decline
Quite a few strategies have been shown to slow progression of dementia or decrease the severity of symptoms, many of which can also slow the general cognitive decline that typically comes with aging. These actions focus on building nervous system health, decreasing plaquing, increasing circulation, reducing brain cell atrophy, and reducing risk factors such as inflammation. In combination, these choices have been shown to reinforce each other and give you more bang for your anti-dementia buck. Just remember, there are two catches:
- They must be started early. If you are aiming at prevention, start long before 65. If your goal is symptom minimization, start as soon after your diagnosis as possible.
- They must be implemented consistently. You can’t just do this for a week and be in the clear. It takes months and even years to bring the brain and body into tip-top shape, at which point the benefits must be maintained. We’re talking about more of an overall lifestyle change than a short-term strategy.
Many of these interventions already fit, or can be easily implemented, into an already healthy lifestyle and diet. Regardless of your age, you should be investing in these strategies now to reap the biggest benefits and lower your dementia risk.
Diet and Nutrition Choices
- Eat a Mediterranean diet. One of the most promising diet strategies tested widely is the Mediterranean diet, significantly outperforming low-fat diets.
- Try a healthy keto diet. Originally designed for epilepsy patients, this very low-carb diet can reduce symptoms of other neurodegenerative disorders as well, including dementia.
- Consume healthy oils. Boosting omega-3 or MCT oil intake has been shown to improve memory. Consuming fish oil, DHA, and unsaturated oils have been shown to lower the risk of dementia.
- Only eat nutrient-rich whole foods. In addition to key vitamins and minerals, nutrient-dense whole foods also contain compounds shown to have a positive impact on dementia. For example, dark colored foods like berries, purple cabbage, black plums, and cocoa are rich in polyphenols and anthocyanins. Onions, garlic and shallots contain allium sulphur compounds.
- Take key supplements. In addition to diet, supplemental nutritional approaches can improve brain functioning. As one study put it, “B vitamins are involved as cofactors in all of the core pathways or pathologies and, together with vitamins C and E, are consistently associated with a protective role against dementia.” Originally developed to help stroke patients heal, citicoline may limit Alzheimer’s nervous system damage. Nootropics are a recent entrant into the brain-health game as well. Look for high quality supplements and take them consistently. Some of these supplements can take 6 weeks or so to actually start having a noticeable effect.
- Treat yourself to very dark chocolate. Cocoa flavonoids can help, but make sure you avoid sugar and dairy.
- Reduce your sugar/carb intake. Increased insulin sensitivity (less insensitivity) can help you avoid risk factors. High carb intake (especially processed/low fiber carbs) has also been shown to worsen cognitive performance in Alzheimer’s patients.
- Watch your iron. The brain’s iron content increases with age and has been found in the plaquing of Alzheimer’s. Removing free iron from the body has long been known to improve cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients. Additionally, some of the neuroinflammation, oxidative stress, and neuronal cell death of Alzheimer’s is now thought to be exacerbated by free iron and iron-loving bacteria. On the positive side, there are natural iron chelators and dietary choices that can help keep any iron buildup under control.
Physical and Mental Exercise
Regular exercise improves brain health, mental performance, and focus in anyone. For dementia, it reduces disease risks and boosts both cognition and daily functioning in sufferers. Aim for at least 30 minutes a day of movement. This can be anything from walking to lifting weights to biking to skiing, you name it. Just pick activities that you enjoy and will keep you moving – and stick with them.
Likewise, regular cognitive engagement has been shown to stave off decline. Consider puzzles, online classes, picking up a new language, a book discussion group, or listening to new podcasts or music. Maintaining and nurturing a strong, tight social circle is also key. Regular social interaction has been shown to reduce stress, improve self-esteem, and improve vascular risk factors – all of which can help lower the risk and slow the progression of those with dementia.
Good Sleep Hygiene
A disrupted circadian rhythm leads to inflammation and other dementia risk factors, and, once you are diagnosed, poor sleep is both a symptom and a condition that can worsen the disease. Interventions like melatonin can help. Yoga in the evenings and turning off screens a couple hours before bed can also help. However you get there, good sleep creates health.
A Strong and Diverse Microbiome
The gut-brain connection is increasingly being noted in a slew of health conditions, from cirrhosis to depression. A poor microbiome is known to contribute to dementia risk factors including inflammation and what researchers call “cognitive frailty.” Many of the physical symptoms of this “frailty” are associated with changes in the microbiome, specifically a lower biodiversity and an absence of beneficial bugs. Take care of your microbiota by eating plenty of prebiotic rich foods, as well as fermented foods. Finding a good, high-quality probiotic supplement is also a good idea.
Tooth and Gum Health
Recently, studies have begun to show that poor oral health is correlated with dementia, including factors such as tooth loss and gum disease or periodontitis. The exact cause is unclear, whether bacteria themselves, or the irritants they produce, cross into the brain. Either way, keeping your teeth and gums healthy and taking care of any problems immediately can benefit your state of health outside of your mouth. Also consider adding oil-pulling to your dental routine if you don’t have mercury fillings.
Let Go and Live
Combining a healthy lifestyle (including good sleep, regular exercise, nurturing your social circle, and a nutrient-dense diet) with key supplements can help mitigate your dementia risk. Once you do that, all that’s left is letting go, trusting that what you are doing is helping, watching as further research develops, and living your life to the utmost right now.
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