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6 Easy Ways to Reduce Your Dementia Risk

By Jeff AndersonJanuary 30, 2013
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Anyone who has witnessed a loved one succumb to Alzheimer’s disease knows its cruelty. Although it can strike any of us and cannot be cured,  we do not need to feel powerless against the disease. Years of research has given the medical community a snapshot of factors under our control that are linked to a higher likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. By looking at the published body of research, we can adopt healthy lifestyle changes that may decrease our chances of developing dementia while also improving the quality of our lives.

We’re inundated with health advice and a lot of it is contradictory. In the morning we might read a story in the paper saying eggs should be avoided because they cause heart disease. And after work, we may turn on the evening news and hear that eggs are the greatest food since God’s Manna because they contain all 20 protoeogenic amino acids. It can be hard to make sense of it all. But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to tune out entirely.

Here are six easy steps you can take that may reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s or at least help you live a healthier life.

1. Live a Heart-Healthy Lifestyle

As the leading cause of death in America, we are waging a formidable battle against heart disease. However, risk factors such as smoking and eating a high-fat diet are under an individual’s control. A heart-healthy lifestyle also lowers your risk of developing memory loss, particularly vascular dementia. Research suggests that vascular dementia can be caused by high blood pressure and heart disease. Here are the core requirements of a lifestyle lived with heart-health in mind:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat a healthy diet (low fat, low sugar, lots of vegetables)
  • Don’t smoke

We agree, this is simple advice, but it’s not always easy. It is hard to break longstanding habits, and our demanding, hectic lives often aren’t conducive to healthy eating and exercise. Faced with these challenges, we can try to incorporate increased activity into our daily routine. Take a walk at lunch or trek to a cafe for lunch if the weather is bad. Take the stairs instead of the elevator whenever possible. Or park further than you need from the entrance to the supermarket.

2. Use Your Brain

Research has shown that higher education levels are linked to decreased risk of cognitive decline. Researchers theorize that well educated people have better connected synapses in their brain. These “cognitive reserves” are thought to help compensate for the havoc wreaked within the brain by Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia  For example, imagine that your brain is a big city and that cars are the messages being sent back and forth within it. In a city with a well-connected transportation grid that has built-in redundancy, a few stalled cars or spinouts won’t keep traffic from reaching its destination and the city will continue to function. But if your city has only a few major roads, and one of them is blocked, your whole city will become congested.

3. Protect Your Head

The Alzheimer’s Association does not beat around the bush: “There appears to be a strong link between future risk of Alzheimer’s and serious head trauma, especially when injury involves loss of consciousness.” While our days of contact sports may be over, that doesn’t mean our heads are in the clear. To minimize your risk of head injury, always wear a seat belt when driving and a helmet when cycling. Falls are also a major cause of head injuries. If you or a loved one have limited mobility or vision problems, be extra careful to make sure that the home is safe and without fall-hazards.

4. Moderate Your Alcohol Use

There are a host of dangers associated with drinking too much, including liver failure and drunk-driving tragedies. But another major risk is dementia. According to a 2008 study, alcohol abuse is the second leading cause of adult dementia in Western countries, accounting for 10% of cases. Men who consume six drinks a day and women who have four drinks per day place themselves at a high risk (more than 10% chance) of developing dementia. If you are having difficulty moderating alcohol use on your own, speak with your doctor, as there are a number of treatment options available. Finally, if you drink red wine for the cardiovascular benefits, you may be surprised to hear that a recent study found nonalcoholic red wine to be more heart-healthy than regular red wine.

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5. Reduce Stress and Spend More Time with Friends

An active social life is linked to longevity, happiness,and good health, but it also associated with a lower risk of developing dementia. The Alzheimer’s Association says that “experts are not certain about the reason for [the] association of an active social life with decreased dementia risk. It may be due to direct mechanisms through which social and mental stimulation protect the brain.”

6. Get Enough Sleep

Sleep and the dreams that come with it have fascinated thinkers for ages. While scientists understand a great deal about sleep, many aspects are still a mystery. We still don’t have a concrete answer to what dreams are, exactly, and why we have them. But we do have a pretty good picture of what happens to people who don’t get enough sleep. In the short term, sleep deprivation can change your mood, decrease your reaction time, and make you more prone to simple mistakes. (That’s why airline pilots have strict requirements involving sleep time.) If you go more than around 24 hours without sleeping, which we do not recommend, you may begin to hallucinate and demonstrate other signs of mental breakdown. But even modest disruptions to the sleep cycle could be linked to Alzheimer’s. A 2012 study found strong evidence indicating that the sleep-wake cycle helps to clear the brain of the amyloid plaques that are thought to cause Alzheimer’s, and another study from October 2012 found that healthy adults who report trouble sleeping have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s in the future. Research on sleep and memory that was published only a few days ago in the journal Nature Neuroscience seems to further affirm that when older people sleep poorly it can prevent them from “storing” memories and lead to dementia symptoms.

How do you know what health advice to pay attention to? Do you listen to your doctor, and block everything else out? Or do you try every supplement advertised on TV? Have you decided whether chocolate is good for you, or bad for you? What about coffee? Or is good/bad a false dichotomy in a complex world. We welcome your thoughts below.

Jeff Anderson