When we think of dementia, we often fear a loss of control. But the reassuring news is that up to 40% of dementia can be prevented or delayed if we change our health habits.
Almost half a million Australians live with dementia. Without a cure, this number is expected to reach 1.1 million by 2058.
Dementia shares key risk factors with cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, being overweight and smoking. Inflammation and oxidative stress (where protective antioxidants lose their fight against harmful free radicals) follow. This damages blood vessels and reduces the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain.
Without enough oxygen, brain cells cannot function effectively and eventually die. Reduced blood flow also leaves the brain vulnerable to the plaques and tangles seen in forms of dementia.
But by changing our habits, we can both improve heart health and reduce dementia risk. Here are five lifestyle changes we can make right now.
Eat 2-3 servings of oily fish each week
Oily fish, like Salmon, sardines and mackerel are rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory effects and have been shown to significantly reduce arterial pressure.
Omega-3s are also needed to support the structure and function of our brain cells and are essential nutrients. This means we need to get them from our diet. This is especially true as we age, as reductions in omega-3 intake have been associated with faster rates of cognitive decline.
Eat plant foods at every meal
Plant foods like leafy greens, extra virgin olive oilblueberries, nuts and legumes – contain a range of vitamins and minerals, including polyphenols, flavonoids, carotenoids, vitamin C and vitamin E. These micronutrients have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that protect and improve the functioning of our blood vessels.
Diets high in plant foods, such as the Mediterranean diethave been shown to improve blood pressure, glucose regulation, and body composition, and have also been associated with lower rates of cognitive decline, better markers of brain health, and lower risk of dementia .
Eat fewer processed foods
On the other hand, saturated fats, refined carbohydrates, and red and processed meats would trigger inflammatory pathways and highly processed foods have been linked to hypertension, type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Eating more of these foods means we are likely to miss the benefits of other foods as well. Whole grains (like whole oats, rye, buckwheat, and barley) provide fiber, vitamins B, E, magnesium, and phytonutrients that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant Properties. Refined grains (like white bread, rice, and pasta) are highly processed, which means many of these beneficial nutrients are stripped out.
Be physical and have fun
Physical activity can reduce inflammation and blood pressure, while improving functioning of blood vessels. This helps the body deliver more oxygen to the brain, improving memory and other cognitive functions affected by dementia.
The guidelines suggest that adults should engage in physical activity most of the time, break up long periods of inactivity (like watching TV) and incorporate resistance exercises.
The key to forming long-term exercise habits is choosing physical activity you enjoy and make small, gradual increases in activity. Any movement that increases heart rate can be classified as physical activity, including gardening, walking, and even household chores.
Smokers are 60% more likely to develop dementia than non-smokers. This is because smoking increases inflammation and oxidative stress which impair the structure and function of our blood vessels.
Stop smoking can begin to reverse these effects. In fact, former smokers have a significantly lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia compared to current smokers, similar to people who have never smoked.
It’s too late?
It’s never too early or too late to start making these changes.
Obesity and high blood pressure in midlife are key predictors of dementia risk, while Diabetesphysical inactivity and smoking are better predictors later in life.
Regular physical activity earlier in life can lower blood pressure and lower your risk of diabetes. Like quitting smoking, changes at any stage of life can reduce inflammation and change your risk of dementia.
Step by step
It can be overwhelming to change your entire diet, start a new exercise program, and quit smoking all at once. But even small changes can lead to significant health improvements. Start by making manageable trades, like:
*Use extra virgin olive oil in place of butter, margarine and other cooking oils
*Redeem a portion of processed foodssuch as crisps, white bread or store-bought biscuits, for a handful of nuts
* Swap one serving of meat each week for one serving of oily fish
* Trade five minutes of sedentary time for five minutes of walking and slowly increase each day.
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