Covid isn’t the only major health issue of our time – experts have also warned of dementia reaching epidemic levels.
Already a leading cause of death and disability in the elderly, according to Alzheimer.ie, the disease will more than double in Ireland over the next 25 years to reach more than 150,000 cases by 2045.
“It’s a really big problem and incredibly common,” says Dr. Emer MacSweeney, CEO and consultant neuroradiologist at Re:Cognition Health, who explains that dementia is not a disease but an umbrella term for a range of conditions that share similar symptoms affecting memory and cognitive function.
“The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, and the biggest risk factor by far is age. Some people may be slightly more predisposed than others, but we are all at risk.
The good news? Some risk factors for dementia are modifiable, which means we can potentially reduce them. “As a population, if we [did this]we can reduce the risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s by about a third,” MacSweeney says.
Early diagnosis and treatment are also essential, so if you’re experiencing possible signs or have concerns for a loved one, discuss them with your doctor.
To mark Dementia Action Week (May 16-22), here are six ways to help reduce your risk of dementia…
1. Physical exercise
Of all the things on this list, MacSweeney thinks the one that “probably has the most effect is exercise. People should really do at least 40 minutes of active cardio three to four times a week,” she suggests — anything that really gets your heart rate up, like jogging, aerobics, or dance class.
If your joints and stamina aren’t up to snuff, MacSweeney says, “Walking, especially brisk walking, is incredibly good exercise. Brisk walking for 40 minutes four times a week is really good for you.
2. Challenge and Goal
We’ve focused a lot on keeping our brains active – by picking up a new language, a musical instrument, or brain teasers, for example. Beyond that, leading UK public health expert Sir Muir Gray, author of Boost Your Brain Capacity and Reduce Your Risk of Dementia (published by OUP), says “challenge and purpose” is an interesting area and that the evidence on this “is very strong in the last five years”.
So beyond intellectual learning tasks, think about being mentally stretched and challenged in a deeper sense. “I often tell people that if you become a volunteer, even if you do no good for others, it will reduce your risk of dementia – especially if you are on the committee! They question things,” Gray quips. “Expose yourself to stimulation and challenge, and if you have a sense of purpose, that’s very helpful.”
3. Monitor your hearing
Hearing loss is very common with age – and while it’s not a direct cause of dementia, it deserves a spot on this list. Registered Psychologist and Hidden Hearing Ambassador Dr Dalia Tsimpida, from the University of Liverpool’s Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, points out that hearing loss was included in a report published by the Lancet Commission in August 2020, examining 12 key modifiable dementia risk factors.
“It has been estimated that nearly 10% of all dementia cases could be prevented through the management of hearing loss – either by preventing the loss from occurring or by preventing the further decline of a loss existing hearing,” says Tsimpida. “Those with untreated hearing loss are 90% more likely to be diagnosed with dementia than those with normal hearing” – yet very few people are aware of this. Take-out? Have your hearing checked regularly and if you notice any hearing loss or if it is detected during a test, don’t ignore it.
4. Healthy eating
As for research, MacSweeney suggests “focusing on the Mediterranean-style diet, like [people who eat this way] have been found to have much lower incidences of dementia and are generally much fitter and healthier.
That means lots of fresh vegetables and fiber, lean protein, and a higher ratio of “good” fats and oils — think olive oil, avocados, nuts, and fatty, garlic-flavored fish. and herbs – foods that are nutritionally rich and hailed for their anti-inflammatory qualities. “And probably the most important thing is to cut down on refined sugar,” adds MacSweeney. “The brain really doesn’t like sugar.”
That doesn’t just mean cakes and cookies. Refined sugar is “hidden” in many things, especially processed foods like white bread and pot sauces, and items like low-fat yogurts and soft drinks.
5. Keep an eye on stress
Measuring stress and studying its effects is tricky. However, MacSweeney says it’s worth a spot on this list.
We all have our ups and downs, of course. But in general terms, she says, “paying attention to and recognizing” what causes us stress, and “trying to be proactive and sensible about reducing it” is very helpful.
There is no single solution. Do what works for you – whether that’s taking less time, swimming regularly or spending time in the garden, or even prioritizing more date nights!
It is often said that we need less sleep as we age. However, Gray emphasizes that “sleep is important” and maintaining a good sleep routine should not be overlooked. Research has shown that sleep helps our brains drain amyloid – a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease and impaired brain function. Sleep also influences how we regulate stress, our motivation to exercise, socialize, and our food choices – it really is the foundation of good health.
What does a lot of sleep mean? “It’s hard to generalize, but first of all, there aren’t many naps in the day,” Gray says. “It’s getting into a rhythm of going to bed at a regular time.” He and MacSweeney both advise avoiding screens for at least an hour before hitting the hay.