Brain Health: Reducing Your Risk of Developing Dementia

By Dr. Bradley C. Shapero

One in every seven Americans older than 71 years of age has some form of dementia, most commonly Alzheimer’s disease. More than 24 million people worldwide have some form of dementia, and by the year 2040, it is estimated that without new medical options that number could reach a staggering 84 million.

However, new research has proven that you can do some things now at any age to prevent becoming another statistic. Read on to learn what you can do, starting today, to reduce your risk of developing dementia.

Exercise your mind.

Leisure activities that sweat the brain, such as board games, crossword puzzles, writing, dancing, playing musical instruments, and reading are proven to stave off the development of dementia. Obtaining higher levels of education also is shown to correlate with a delayed presentation of dementia; although once developed, progression is not slowed.

Whatever you do, do not spend hours in front of the television. Elderly people who do so drastically increase their chances of developing dementia. Memorizing new information also reduces the risk of developing dementia later in life.

Exercise your body.

Studies have shown that it does not matter what form of exercise you choose. Anything from water aerobics to hiking will work, but the frequency and intensity does matter. In fact, in one study of nearly 1500 people who were tested at midlife before displaying any symptoms of dementia and then tested again between 65-79 years of age, those who exercised at least two times each week during middle age had a significantly decreased risk of dementia development, even after all other variables were ruled out. The greatest benefit is observed, in some studies, in those individuals who were genetically susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease. However, other studies did not reach the same conclusion.

Doing challenging physical activity increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, and helps to form new cells. In fact, physically active people actually have a larger hippocampus, the area of the brain that helps with learning and memory. Physical activity also produces endorphins and other feel good chemicals that lead to calming and improved focus. It appears that the more energy expended during physical activity, the greater the reduction of risk. Even after dementia has begun to develop, exercise can improve concentration and brain plasticity.

Think positively.

Depression is positively linked to a person’s chance of developing cardiovascular disease, which in turn is linked to development of vascular dementia.

Decrease your risk for developing hypertension and stroke
Hypertension and stroke are linked to the development of both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Unfortunately, studies have not shown that use of statins to decrease cholesterol levels is also effective in the prevention of dementia. In fact, statins actually may hurt cognition as an unfavorable side effect. Further research is ongoing. However, using angiotensin receptor blockers to treat hypertension may reduce the risk of developing dementia.

Eat Right.

The following tips may help to reduce the risk of dementia:

Fruits and vegetables: Consume plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. One study completed in France with 8000 people showed that dementia was reduced by 28% among people eating fruits and vegetables on a daily basis.

Fatty fish: Eat several servings of fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna, each week. This may reduce the risk of developing dementia, although studies have shown highly variable results. The most positive results are a possible association with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Oil: Choose oils that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as walnut or soy oils. This also may reduce the risk of dementia, although results are varied.

Red meat: Reduce your intake of red meat to limit homocysteine levels in the blood.

Vitamin D: Make sure you get plenty of vitamin D. Inadequate vitamin D levels are linked to possible cognitive decline and dementia. Exposure to 10-15 minutes of sunlight/day on the arms and legs, whenever possible, is recommended. Foods rich in vitamin D include:

Fortified milk
Cheese
Cream
Butter and margarine
Oysters
Salmon
Tuna
Fortified cereal
Liver
Cod-liver oil
Eggs

Antioxidants: Antioxidants, such as vitamin E and coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), may slow the risk of cognitive decline and help your brain to get more oxygen. Vitamin E is found in:

Soybean oil
Corn oil
Safflower oil
Cottonseed oil
Wheat germ
Whole grains
Green-leafy vegetables
Nuts
Corn
Seeds
Olives
Egg yolk
Liver

CoQ10 is found in:

Oily fish
Organ meats
Whole grains

Folic acid: Eat plenty of foods rich in folic acid or consider taking a supplement. In a study of 579 people older than 60 years of age, those people who consumed at least 400 micrograms of folic acid were less likely to receive a diagnosis of dementia. This is because folic acid decreases the body’s levels of homocysteine, an amino acid linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Folic acid may even help people who are already diagnosed with dementia. Folic acid is found in:

Green-leafy vegetables
Brewer’s yeast
Liver
Fortified cereals
Citrus fruits (especially orange juice)
Beets
Broccoli
Wheat bran
Whole grains
Tomatoes

B12: Foods that are rich in vitamin B12 also decrease homocysteine levels. Consider receiving injections of B12, which is possibly the best choice. The best dietary sources of B12 are animal products, such as meat, milk, and eggs.

Zinc: Elderly people often are deficient in zinc, which is possibly effective in improving memory. The best sources of zinc are:

Meat
Shellfish
Poultry
Milk
Milk products

Lose weight, if you need to.

People with central obesity (in the abdominal area) appear to have a much higher risk for developing dementia. In one study of 6500 individuals within the Kaiser Permanente Northern California system, those with the largest abdominal measurement had three times the risk of developing dementia, compared to those with the smallest waist measurement.

Get enough sleep.

Sleep deprivation temporarily decreases levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is crucial for storing information.

Quit smoking, if you smoke.

Smoking increases your risk of developing cerebrovascular disease, a condition that causes your brain to not receive all of the blood necessary to operate properly.

Do not stop drinking coffee.

The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease recently published a study showing that when 1500 middle-aged Scandinavians drank 3-5 cups of coffee/day, their risk of developing dementia later in life was reduced by two-thirds.

Follow your doctor’s advice if you have diabetes.

Diabetes is linked to development of dementia. Control of preexisting diabetes and prevention of diabetes is critical.

References and recommended readings:

Alzheimer’s Association. Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and dementia. Available at: http://www.alzdsw.org/pdf_documents/factsheets/diabetes.pdf. Accessed January 3, 2010.

Disabled World. Dementia facts and statistics. Available at: http://www.disabled-world.com/health/aging/dementia/statistics.php. Accessed January 3, 2010.

Gaff T. Simple dietary steps may help prevent dementia. Available at: http://www.fwdailynews.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3468:Simple-dietary-steps-may-help-prevent-dementia&catid=100:terry-gaff&Itemid=136. Accessed January 3, 2010.

Gandey A. Vitamin D may influence cognitive dysfunction and dementia. Available at: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/713345. Accessed January 3, 2010.

HealthCentral Network. Preventing dementia. Available at: http://www.healthcentral.com/caregiver/vanda-210117-5.html. Accessed January 3, 2010.

Hitti M. More than 3 million have dementia: nearly 1 in 7 adults aged 71 and older have dementia; Alzheimer?s is the most common type of dementia. Available at: http://www.webmd.com/alzheimers/news/20071031/more-than-3-million-have-dementia. Accessed January 3, 2010.

Hitti M. 3 diet keys to reducing dementia: think salmon, greens dressed in walnut oil, and fruit for dessert. Available at: http://www.webmd.com/alzheimers/news/20071112/3-diet-keys-to-reducing-dementia. Accessed January 3, 2010.

Kelly J. Statins fail to prevent dementia, Alzheimer’s disease. Available at: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/591119?src=rss. Accessed January 3, 2010.

Porter C. Dementia studies find diet, exercise matters. Available at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204251404574344582587608264.html. Accessed January 3, 2010.

ScienceDaily. Diet linked to cognitive decline and dementia. Available at: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071106164725.htm. Accessed January 3, 2010.

ScienceDaily. Walking and moderate exercise help prevent dementia. Available at: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/12/071219202948.htm. Accessed January 3, 2010.

University of Maryland Medical Center. Dementia. Available at: http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/dementia-000046.htm. Accessed January 3, 2010.

US Dept of Health & Human Services, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on cognitive function with aging, dementia, and neurological diseases. Available at: http://www.ahrq.gov/clinic/epcsums/o3cognsum.htm. Accessed January 3, 2010.

Wascher RA. Health report: central obesity & dementia. Available at: http://doctorwascher.com/Archives/10-5-08.htm. Accessed January 3, 2010.

WebMD. Dementia prevention and brain exercises. Available at: http://www.webmd.com/alzheimers/guide/preventing-dementia-brain-exercises. Accessed January 3, 2010.

share