Dementia Prevention

Written by Wendy Leonard, MPH | Published on July 24, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD on July 24, 2014

Dementia Prevention

Most causes of dementia are not preventable. However, many drug companies, foundations, non-profit organizations, and others are all actively researching ways slow, delay, and prevent dementia. Many are particularly focused on Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

What You Should Do Right Away

Vascular dementia is caused by a series of small strokes. There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of stroke. If you smoke, quit. If you have high blood pressure and/or diabetes, talk with your doctor about getting those under control. Many studies strongly suggest that a low-fat diet and regular exercise may also reduce the risk of vascular dementia.

Some conditions mimic dementia or have dementia-like symptoms. These include changes in blood sugar, sodium, and calcium, as well as low vitamin B-12 levels. If caught early, these may be treatable. If you have symptoms, don’t delay seeing your doctor.

Diet

Evidence suggests that eating a Mediterranean diet may decrease your risk of developing AD.  A Mediterranean diet consists of little red meat and large amounts of:

  • whole grains
  • fruits and vegetables
  • fish and shellfish
  • nuts, olive oil, and other healthy fats.

Other studies have examined foods rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory components to find out whether those foods affect age-related changes in the brain. For example, studies in rats and mice show that adding blueberries, strawberries, and cranberries to the diet can improve cognitive mental function. This was true both in animals that aged normally and those specifically bred to develop AD.

Another study found that curcumin can suppress slow the buildup of amyloid plaques in the brains of rodents. Curcumin is the main ingredient of turmeric (the spice that gives mustard its bright yellow color).

Mental Exercise

Studies have shown that keeping the brain active may reduce AD risk. In one famous long-term study called the Religious Orders Study, investigators periodically asked more than 700 participants—older nuns, priests, and religious brothers—to describe the amount of time they spent in seven information-processing activities. These activities included listening to the radio, reading newspapers, playing puzzle games, and going to museums.

After following the participants for four years, the investigators found that the risk of developing AD averaged 47 percent lower for those who did the activities most often than for those who did them least frequently.

Other studies have found that higher levels of education appear to protect both cognitive (e.g. thinking, reasoning) and emotional outcomes.

Health experts believe that this level of mental exercise creates a “cognitive reserve.” This means you develop additional neurons and pathways in your brain.

Think of it like this: If your brain has one road to transport information from point A to point B, and there’s a roadblock or dead end along the way, the information won’t get through. However, if you have developed multiple and alternative routes in your brain, the information can still get to point B.

So, you may want to consider exercising your brain. Start doing crossword puzzles or learn how to do something new—dancing, bridge, or anything else, as long as it’s new.

Social Engagement

Research suggests that seniors who spend most of their time in their home environment are almost twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as those who travel out of town. It is unclear whether better health results in more travel or more travel results in better health.

Exercise

Studies suggest that when older adults with AD engage in aerobic exercise, it improves their psychological and behavioral symptoms. Note: In these studies, aerobic exercise was defined as repetitive and rhythmic movement of large muscle groups, such as the legs.

For example, the American Health Assistance Foundation (AHAF) cites one study that looked at the relationship between physical activity and AD risk in about 1,700 adults aged 65 years and older over a six-year period. That study found that the risk of AD was 35 to 40 percent lower in those who exercise for at least 15 minutes, three or more times a week than in those who exercise fewer than three times a week.

Smoking

Studies suggest that current smoking increases your risk of developing AD and other dementias. Having smoked in the past does not appear to increase your risk. So, if you still smoke, now is the time to quit. Talk with your doctor about ways of quitting that could work for you.

Cholesterol Levels

Research suggests that people with high cholesterol levels have a higher risk of developing AD. Cholesterol is involved in formation of amyloid plaques in the brain. Studies show that the use of drugs called statins, which lower cholesterol levels, is associated with a lower likelihood of cognitive impairment.

Homocysteine

Homocysteine is an amino acid. Amino acids are building blocks of proteins. Studies suggest that a higher-than-average level of homocysteine is a risk factor for AD, vascular dementia, cognitive impairment, and stroke (Seshadri, et al., 2011).

Eating foods high in folate (folic acid) and other B vitamins (such as B6 and B12) can lower your homocysteine level. Some good sources of natural folate include romaine lettuce, spinach, asparagus, broccoli, collard greens, parsley, cauliflower, beets, and lentils. This is not proven to protect against dementia. But these are healthy foods to eat anyway.

Blood Pressure

Several studies have shown that antihypertensive medicine reduces the odds of cognitive impairment in elderly people with high blood pressure. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), one large European study found a 55 percent lower risk of dementia in people over 60 who received drug treatment for hypertension. These people had a reduced risk of both AD and vascular dementia. If you have high blood pressure, see your doctor. Taking medication to control it may reduce your risk of dementia.

Inflammation

Studies suggest that inflammation may contribute to AD. Autopsies of people who died with AD have shown widespread inflammation in the brain. Another study found that men with high levels of C-reactive protein, an indication of inflammation, had an increased risk of AD and other kinds of dementia.

Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs

Research indicates that long-term use of NSAIDs (such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and other similar drugs) may prevent or delay the onset of AD. This may be due to reduced inflammation. A 2003 study showed that these drugs also bind to amyloid plaques and may help to dissolve them and prevent formation of new plaques.

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