brain-health

Dementia, Alzheimer’s and general cognitive decline is bitterly destroying so many lives. Worldwide, 47.5 million people have dementia and there are 7.7 million new cases every year[1] meaning that the lives of more and more of us are being devastated by this disease.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you just what dementia and its associated illnesses can do to a person; most of us know someone who has experienced this tragic illness. From a personal perspective, I’ve seen my grandmother rapidly deteriorate with Alzheimer’s over the years, to the point where the vivacious, outgoing person we love has been lost and replaced with an empty shell. Dementia has brought great sadness to my family. We’ve cried and we’ve mourned for a person who is alive but absent, so it’s no surprise that combatting cognitive decline is something I feel passionately about. I don’t just want to know how to cure it, I want to understand how to prevent dementia, Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline.

There is a lifeline out there. Through my research I have found that there are several ways to help stave off the deterioration of the brain; in fact, there are ways that you can actually improve your mental health. And the best bit is that it is never too late to start. Dr. Kirk Erickson of the University of Pittsburgh says “Dementia may not be an inevitable part of aging- in fact, well into late adulthood, the brain has the remarkable ability to continue to grow rather than atrophy.” He goes on to say that “It’s never too late to start. The earlier you begin, the greater the protection for your brain.”[2]

So how can you prevent dementia? Ongoing global research suggests that there are 6 ‘pillars’ to safeguarding your mental health:

Dementia

For several years now, medical professionals have recommended that, to reduce your risk of dementia and other serious health conditions, there are some very clear steps you can take:

• Eat a healthy diet
• Maintain a healthy weight
• Exercise regularly
• Don’t drink too much alcohol
• Stop smoking (if you do smoke)

Make sure that your blood pressure is at a healthy level

These are commonly used recommendations prescribed for any health boosting strategy. And I’m not going to disagree with any of them! But as the sectors in the previous diagram suggest, there are also many other activities and lifestyles you can involve yourself in to keep your brain in the best possible health.

1. Regular Exercise

A group of elderly people exercising together on balance balls

You don’t need me to tell you that exercise is good for you, but did you know that, according to the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, regular exercise can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s by a staggering 50%? If that wasn’t motivation enough to get you moving, research is starting indicate that regular exercise can also slow further deterioration for those who have already started to develop cognitive health problems.

So how does it work? Scientific studies have shown that the brain’s hippocampus and prefrontal cortex respond positively to physical exercise. These two areas of the brain play dominant roles in memory formation and complex thinking, and their deterioration has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. The studies have shown that exercise actually helps to increase the size of both these areas of the brain, meaning that keeping fit can actually help our brains to continue to grow.

The jury’s still out on exactly how much exercise you need to be doing to protect you from dementia, but doing something is absolutely better than doing nothing!  Many health experts recommend moderate exercise several times a week, which incorporates a combination of cardio and strength training. Everyone is different though, so I would recommend speaking to a fitness professional to build an exercise strategy that suits you.

For me, the main consideration is to focus on what you enjoy doing. Taking part in an activity you loath is not conducive to results in that sport! Find a physical activity you enjoy and it won’t feel like a chore; it can be anything from working out in the gym to swimming, tennis or a dance class. Dr. Erickson says that even “roughly 30 to 40 minutes of brisk walking several times a week will improve brain function and cognitive performance.” So even just the daily dog walk will help you to prevent dementia, and maybe even reduce its effects.

2. Healthy Diet

Fruit-Vegetables-Healthy-Food

‘Doctors have found that inflammation and insulin resistance, often caused by a poor diet, injures neurons and inhibits communication between brain cells. Alzheimer’s is sometimes described as ‘diabetes of the brain’ and a growing body of information suggests a strong link between metabolic disorders and the signal processing systems.’[3] For me, this indicates that we need to consider consuming foods that are ‘brain-healthy’ and encourage normal energy production and recue inflammation. Thankfully there are some very familiar food stuffs out there that you can incorporate into your diet:

• Eat like you’re in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean diet is often advocated in the press and by medical professionals alike. And it’s no surprise when you consider that it’s mainly plant based, uses ‘healthier’ fats, such as olive oil rather than butter, and relies on herbs for flavour rather than salt. The diet prescribes lots of fresh, local vegetables, fish, pulses and low carbohydrates and frankly tastes great too!

• Whilst you’re at it, take a trip to Asia. Another part of the world that is heralded for its healthier diet is South East Asia. Rich in fermented food (which is also great for a healthy gut), green tea and ginger, Asian flavours can actually help your brain. ‘Researchers believe that glial cells may help remove debris and toxins from the brain that can contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. Consuming foods such as ginger, green tea, fatty fish, soy products, blueberries, and other dark berries may protect these important cells from damage.’[4]

Asian teas have also been associated with a healthy brain, especially green and oolong, as they are thought to enhance memory and mental alertness and slow brain aging.

• Cut the fat, but not all of it. Whenever we talk about healthy eating, the topic of fat always raises its oversized head. By now, as an educated country, we know that saturated fats and trans-fats are bad for us. Filling your face with burgers, butter and battered sausages is fine if you want to die a premature death, but are no-goes if you want a healthy body and mind. These greasy, processed, often dairy or red meat based, foods cause inflammation and free radicals, which are bad news for your brain.

But not all fats are equal; in fact you need some fats to support a healthy diet. Oils such as omega-3, found in cold-water fish, can actually help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia by reducing beta-amyloid plaques. So consider swapping that sausage roll for a delicious and healthy slice of salmon.

• Eat your greens! And your reds, oranges, yellows and purples! It’s no shock I’m sure, but fruit and vegetables feature heavily on this list! Every variety has its own benefits, so I won’t even attempt to start listing them all here, but my recommendation is that you eat plenty of vegetables, and fruit in moderation. Variety is the key, so eat across the spectrum to truly benefit from the plethora of vitamins and antioxidants that vegetables can provide. I’d also add as a caveat to that to try and eat local, seasonal produce. Locally grown produce tends to be free from artificial chemicals often sprayed on vegetables to preserve them for longer during transit.

• Watch your levels. Earlier in this section I mentioned that Alzheimer’s is often referred to a the ‘diabetes of the brain’ and that is mainly due to the fact that spikes in your blood sugar levels can inflame your brain, leading to shrinkage and cognitive decline. You can combat the peaks and troughs of blood sugar levels by eating little and often (several smaller meals throughout the day) and cutting our refined sugar and refined carbohydrates.

3. Mental Stimulation

Woman playing backgammon with senior citizen in a retirement home
Woman playing backgammon with senior citizen in a retirement home

The phrase ‘use it or lose it’ could not ring truer when it comes to mental stimulation. It’s a sad reality, but as we get older we become less and less mentally engaged. Look at children: in their first eighteen months alone they go from being completely dependent to learning how to talk and walk. Then, as they grow, children are constantly learning, questioning, exploring and imagining.  Our mental power explodes into action as we go to school, enter into the world of work, have children of our own, but then the learning stops. As adults we seem to gradually become mentally stagnant, feeling like we don’t need to know anything else, like we have used up our brain’s quota. And it’s killing us.

Research has found that those who continue to learn new things throughout their lives, challenging their brains, are far less likely to develop cognitive health problems. Exercising your mental muscle is pivotal to staving off the onset of dementia.

And there are so many things you can do- use your imagination, like you used to. You could start simple by reading a great, new novel, solving crossword puzzles or playing memory games, but why stop there? The world is a wondrous place filed with endless possibilities. Why not use your retirement to study the subject you always dreamt of? Or take up a creative hobby that you’re passionate about? Why not start a blog detailing your journey, so that you can also interact with others around you, helping them with their mental stimulation? There are so many possibilities at your fingertips. Just take the brave step and pledge to never stop learning, creating or exploring.

Our online community has loads of tips and guides on a huge range of topics, so use these as a starting point to fire your imagination.

4. Quality Sleep

Sleeping-Feature

With my grandma suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, I have a fair understanding of how people with this illness can often suffer from insomnia. In the early days of her illness, my grandma would often be found walking the streets of her home town in the early hours, purely to while away the time until the rest of the world woke. But insomnia is not just a side-effect of cognitive decline, it can also be a cause.

More and more studies are showing links between disrupted sleep and the production of higher levels of beta-amyloid. Coupled together, these prevent deep sleep taking place, which is vital for memory formation and the flushing out of brain toxins. Not to mention the detrimental effect lack of uninterrupted sleep can have on your mood, logic and general health.

It would be very easy for me to just say “get 8 hours sleep every night and you can reduce your risk of dementia”. But it’s not always that simple. Sleep can be problematic for many people, so, if you think that insomnia is occurring on a regular basis and taking a heavy toll on your wellbeing, I urge you to your GP and talk to them about sleep apnoea.

However, there are some techniques that you can try out on your own too. The emphasis here is on relaxation and establishing a routine:

• Try to go to bed at the same time every day and wake up at the same time too- that’s right, no weekend lie-ins, because they are actually bad for your mental health!
• Have a long, hot bath before bed. We do this to help our children sleep, but seem to have forgotten to apply the rule to ourselves. A soak in the tub can often help to ease away the stresses of the day and make you feel sleepy.
• Reserve your bedroom, or the area where you sleep, for that. Banish TVs, computers and paperwork from the bedroom- I’m all for mental stimulation, but not when you are trying to sleep!
• Try meditation for 5-10 minutes before you go to bed. Clearing and calming your mind helps to alleviate the mental ‘chatter’ that keeps so many of us up all night.
• Try not to indulge in siestas. Napping, on the whole, is not advisable, as it can adversely affect your sleep pattern. If you really must nap, only do this for 30 minutes and in the early afternoon.

 

5. Stress Management

Leading on nicely from relaxation techniques comes stress: an illness in its own right that can manifest itself in a variety of ways. I just want to clarify what I mean when I’m talking about stress here; it’s a broad spectrum that is open to interpretation and effects everyone differently. In terms of dementia, it is chronic stress that can be damaging: the type of stress that adversely effects your everyday functions. This type of stress has been shown to lead to shrinkage in the brain tissue and hampering nerve cell growth, thus increasing the likelihood of the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

But stress can often gather momentum, like an avalanche, so ‘nipping it in the bud’ is often the best strategy. Don’t let daily stresses evolve into a crippling illness. These simple tools may help, but as ever, if you are concerned with stress, seek medical advice.

• Meditation and Yoga. These two often go hand-in-hand but of course can be practised separately. The key element of these practices is breathing: to increase oxygen levels in the brain, restore inner peace and give you time to sit in quiet contemplation. I appreciate that it sounds a little ‘new age’ but it is an incredibly power practice that is free and could save your life.
• Have Fun! Don’t take life to seriously- set time aside to enjoy the things you like to do. That could be a walk in the countryside with your grandchildren, a trip to the cinema or just getting together with your friends to reminisce and enjoy a treat (sometimes sugar has a place!)
• Make Time for You. Being sociable is important (as you will see in a moment) but sometimes time by yourself to reflect, calm your emotions or unwind is just as important. My me time is usually done in the bath whilst reading a book or walking the dogs. Do whatever makes you feel calm and relaxed.

6. Social Engagement

social engagement

Something that truly saddens me is the correlation between our age and our loneliness. It seems the older we become, the less we interact socially. There are too many stories of the elderly in the press who have died, lonely in their homes, not found for days because they had no family or friends left to check on them. In my mind that’s a huge problem, and thankfully one that wonderful people like the team at charities like ‘Be a Friend Today’ are helping to combat. http://www.beafriendtoday.org.uk/about-us/friends-of-the-elderly/

But I’ll step down from my soapbox for a moment, as long as you promise to start engaging with the elderly around you; even if it’s a weekly cup of tea with your elderly neighbour to give them the chance to talk to you about the latest episode of ‘Coronation Street’. I’ll leave that thought there.

Loneliness and lack of social engagement can actually lead to Alzheimer’s and dementia too, so it pays to go and have a chat with those around you! As human beings we are highly social creatures who cannot survive in isolation. Research even goes as far to show that socially engaged people tend to stave off the effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia for far longer.

So, make sure that you keep on building your social interactions, whether that’s talking to your partner, attending a weekly workshop or undertaking some volunteering work. Regular, quality interactions are great fun and a boost for your help.

So there we have it: 6 ways that you can help to prevent Alzheimer’s, dementia and cognitive decline- and most them are actually fun! Keep active, eat healthy, sleep well, have fun, keep calm and never stop growing as a person. I’m confident that education will help to reduce the devastating cognitive illnesses that are sweeping the globe but only if we start by making sure we are the healthiest we can be.

[1] www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs362/en/

[2] Kirk Erickson PhD, University of Pittsburgh

[3] Taken from Helpguide.org

[4] Helpguide.org


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