Dementia affects about one in seven people over the age of 70 in the United States. While most people associate this with the impact it has on someone’s memory and thoughts, living with the condition usually also affects their behavior and makes everyday tasks a struggle. It’s a condition that leads to loss of independence and is overwhelming for not just those with dementia, but also for their family and caregivers.
Although it's often said that to ward off memory problems, it’s important to keep your mind active as you get older, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that your lifestyle choices can also influence whether or not you are at risk. Here we take a look at a number of steps that can be taken to reduce your chance of developing dementia.
Smoking has been consistently shown by scientific studies to increase the risk of dementia. The habit has long been known to increase the risk of heart and circulatory diseases, and it is now appreciated that vascular dementia, the second most common form of this disease, shares similar risk factors.
Smoking increases the buildup of fatty deposits on the walls of the arteries, reducing the blood flow and therefore the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the brain; this is likely to have a negative impact on brain cells. Using tobacco also increases the exposure of the body to harmful free radicals, which are damaging to cells.
While the best option is to avoid smoking in the first place, current smokers can gain benefits in terms of reducing the chance of dementia if they quit their habit. It’s hard to stop smoking through willpower alone, but smoking cessation counseling, nicotine replacement therapy and quit-smoking medications can all increase the chances of someone successfully kicking the habit. Giving up smoking additionally reduces the risk of passive smoking for others, which is also linked to the condition.
Physical activity is one of the best ways to improve the circulation, which includes increased blood flow to the brain. Indeed, exercising regularly is linked to a reduced risk of dementia in later life. However, better circulation may only explain this in part, as research shows that taking part in physical activity increases the size of certain areas of the brain, which is thought to offer some protection against memory problems.
Current guidelines for physical activity recommend that all adults aim for at least 150 minutes of exercise weekly for the maintenance of good health. This level of activity should be manageable for most people, particularly as the exercise can be spread throughout the week and can include walking, gardening, DIY and vigorous housework.
Vitamins C and E, beta-carotene and the mineral selenium are known as antioxidants. They help to protect the cells of the body from attack by free radicals, which are implicated in the development of dementia — both directly through damage to brain cells, but also indirectly through damage to the blood vessels and compromised blood flow.
Brightly colored fruit and vegetables provide much of the antioxidants we obtain from our diet, but whole grains and nuts are also a good source; additionally, seafood is rich in selenium.
An adequate intake of two of the B vitamins, folate and vitamin B12, may reduce the likelihood of cognitive decline. Research has shown that both can lower levels of a substance known as homocysteine, which is believed to be a risk factor for dementia; those with cognitive problems tend to have higher levels of homocysteine, which is thought to increase the likelihood of narrowing of the arteries.
Folate is found in a wide range of foods, and eating a varied diet is one of the best ways to ensure a sufficient intake. Among some of the richest sources of folate are fortified breakfast cereals, green vegetables, citrus fruits, berries, whole grains and liver. Vitamin B12 tends to be found in foods of animal origin, so strict vegetarians and vegans may struggle to obtain enough of this B vitamin. The good news is that many cereals, milk and meat substitutes and brewer’s yeast have vitamin B12 added to them.
Omega-3 fatty acids play a role in protecting the circulation, and it also appears that these essential fatty acids are important to protect against the risk of dementia. The fact that they are known to reduce blood pressure, levels of trigylcerides and protect against blood clots helps to promote healthy blood flow to the brain. However, as the brain also contains high concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids and those with dementia have been found to have a lower proportion of these, the dietary intake of omega-3s may directly influence cognitive function.
Although oily fish — such as salmon, mackerel and sardines — are the richest source of these beneficial fats and eating fish twice weekly will meet your requirements, they can be sourced from a number of plant-based foods, such as green leafy vegetables, walnuts and flaxseeds, as well as their oils. The downside of sourcing these oils from plants is that they are not as easy for the body to use, but algae supplements contain similar omega-3s to those in oily fish and are suitable for vegetarians.
Lisa Bennett is a freelance writer and full-time mom. After graduating college, she put a lot of effort into her career as a nutritionist, but when motherhood came along, she decided it was time to pull back and take up her other passion: writing. Now she writes about a wide variety of topics and finds her work-life balance far more enjoyable. When not working and caring for her children, she likes to go for long walks with her dogs, though she is considering using Rollerblades so they can pull her.