As I speak with blended audiences around the country, I hear a common concern from folks of all ages, “The thought of aging with dementia worries me.” If you’ve ever pushed that little fear out of mind, you’re not alone. Stay with me; today we’re spreading good news about dementia prevention!
There is a common misconception that dementia is “normal” or inevitable in old age. Yet the neurodegenerative disorder is a disease, and like other diseases, there are many things you can do to reduce your risk of developing dementia.
If you or a loved one is concerned about developing dementia—or maybe even experiencing the early stages of mild cognitive impairment (MCI)—preventative strategies may be easier than you think. It’s not too late to begin health-supporting habits and routines to positively impact your brain health and help you be your best at every age.
The Challenge of Dementia Prevention
Preventing a neurodegenerative disorder like dementia can sound daunting, but if you take your current behaviors and shift them just a little in a healthy direction, you can take agency over your health and optimize your body and mind (ya know, the two are connected!). Even small behavioral changes can lead to remarkable improvements in your well-being and support dementia prevention. Let’s take a closer look at three broad areas of everyday life (eating, sleeping, and activity patterns) where you might make simple adjustments at any age to reduce your risk of developing dementia and live life more fully.
Dementia Prevention Strategies: Three Everyday Patterns to Manage
1. Eating Patterns. It sounds overly simple, but it’s true: the fuel you put in your body impacts your mental and physical function. Research on the gut microbiome—the healthy bacteria living in your stomach and intestines—suggests that healthy eating patterns can lead to a healthy brain, cognitively and psychologically. An eating pattern that includes high consumption of the necessary vitamins, minerals, and nutrients found in everyday dishes is important for reducing neuroinflammation and promoting neurogenesis, the birth and repair of brain cells—both important factors for decreasing the risk of dementia. So what constitutes a “good diet”?
While fad diets are tempting with their claims to cure everything from the common cold to cancer, nutrition research has prioritized long-term healthy eating patterns over short-lived, overly restrictive diets. One particular pattern of eating studied for the prevention and management of dementia is called the MIND Diet: Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay Diet.
Instead of telling you what you must or cannot eat, this dietary approach suggests groups of foods to eat more or less of. Based on an “intuitive eating framework”, the MIND Diet draws from research on both the Mediterranean Diet—which has been proven to promote health and longevity—as well as the DASH Diet—which is often used as a dietary approach to curbing hypertension and cardiovascular disease and is important for overall physical and brain health as well.
The MIND Diet recommends eating less saturated fats and more leafy greens, as leafy greens are associated with slower cognitive decline. One study showed that those who consumed two servings of leafy greens a day were cognitively five years younger than the control group, who did not eat two servings of leafy greens a day moderately consistently (Zhao et al., 2018). Even if you do not like salads, there are plenty of recipes online and in cookbooks to spark your creativity in incorporating more leafy greens into your meals.
2. Sleep Patterns. Believe it or not, the amount—and more importantly, the quality of sleep—that we get greatly affect our physical and mental well-being. It’s not uncommon for older adults to complain that they are not getting enough sleep; only 20 percent report having no problem at all. While research is inconclusive on the long-term effects of sleep on dementia prevention, several well-studied mechanisms of sleep pose a convincing case to incorporate it into our list of dementia prevention strategies.
Sleep deprivation can lead to increased inflammatory response in the body, which can lead to poorer health outcomes. Neuroinflammation, or inflammation specific to the brain, can reduce the brain’s ability to make new connections and strengthen existing connections—included in a broader concept called neuroplasticity, which is also important for the prevention of dementia.
Not only is inflammation a concern, but during sleep, the cerebrospinal fluid that circulates in your brain washes away toxins produced by your brain’s hard-working metabolism. Neurotoxins—along with amyloid-beta plaques, a major cause of Alzheimer’s disease—are then filtered out through the blood. One study showed a 14 percent decrease in the risk of developing dementia among non-demented people who, on average—because remember, we are talking about patterns here—got adequate sleep. Now, proper sleep looks different for each person. Talk to your providers about what a healthy sleep pattern might look like for you and check out some resources on sleep hygiene!
3. Activity Patterns. Physical activity is great for your muscles, bones, and even brain! Research shows that physical activity—read: moving your body—is proven to promote neurogenesis and neuronal recovery after ischemic insult and neurotoxic injury. In general, moving your body increases blood flow, which brings more oxygen and nutrients to brain cells and even helps clear the beta-amyloid plaques that cause Alzheimer’s disease.
Regularly moving your body not only promotes brain health, but it also helps prevent and manage coronary artery disease, strokes, some cancers, and diabetes type II—all of which are known risk factors for dementia. Older adults have the highest degree of illness but also often have the lowest levels of physical activity.
There are many ways that you can incorporate more movement into your everyday routine. Try standing more when completing your daily tasks, consider going for a walk around your neighborhood, or maybe even have a dance party with a friend or loved one! Physical activity doesn’t have to be boring or only take place in a gym. There is a new perspective on physical activity called “intuitive movement” which emphasizes listening to your body to determine what physical activity it needs—maybe it’s stretching, maybe it’s yoga, maybe it’s walking to the mailbox and back. Your body knows more about what you need than you realize.
Practical Application: What Can You Do Right Now? Tomorrow? Next Week?
- Eat Yummy Foods Full of Nutrients, Especially Leafy Greens! Get creative in the kitchen or try something new at your favorite restaurant. You don’t have to go on a “diet” to change your diet. You can just make little adjustments here and there.
- Get Some Rest! Getting good sleep creates the best start to any day. It’s good for your body, mind, and soul. Plus, who doesn’t love a good night’s sleep! Avoid caffeine in the afternoon, avoid screen time an hour or so before bed, and take time to wind down. There are plenty of other sleep hygiene tips in the link above.
- Lastly, MOVE. YOUR. BODY. There are numerous health benefits from simply getting up and getting going. This movement will look different for everyone, so there is absolutely no right or wrong way to get moving. Think about what sounds fun to you; maybe invite a friend and move that body!
If you’d like to learn more about communicating with someone living with dementia or how to adapt care along the progression of the disease, check out videos on our Online Education page or contact us today.
Zhao, C., Noble, J. M., Marder, K., Hartman, J. S., Gu, Y., & Scarmeas, N. (2018). Dietary Patterns, Physical Activity, Sleep, and Risk for Dementia and Cognitive Decline. Current nutrition reports, 7(4), 335–345. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13668-018-0247-9
By Logan Leggett, Occupational Therapy Student, East Carolina University, and Dr. Heather McKay, Partnerships for Health