The incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is growing at an alarming rate. According to a March 2023 WHO report1 over 55 million people suffer from dementia and/or AD worldwide and this is increasing by about 10 million people per year! Put another way – every 3 seconds someone develops AD! Anyone who has had the misfortune to watch a parent or loved one with dementia will know the tragic effect it has on one’s ability to live a normal life. It must surely be one of the saddest experiences ever to watch someone slowly lose their mental faculties. There is good news though! Science has increasingly been showing that there are a number of things we can do to reduce, and possibly prevent, our risk of suffering from this terrible condition.
These mental conditions develop slowly over a long period. In fact, they typically takes decades to manifest, which means we need to start looking after our brains from an early age! It’s often too late to start thinking about it in our 50s and 60s – the damage is already done. That been said, there are things we can do, even when older, to help protect our brains. In this article we’ll look at the very latest research and suggest things that we can do to keep our brain active and healthy.
The very first thing is to start thinking of the brain as we would a muscle. We all know the old adage, ‘use it or lose it’. This applies to our brains too. The more we challenge our brains, the healthier they remain.
Professor Tommy Wood from the University of Washington has some interesting views on this. He maintains that the best way to challenge our brain is to fail! This may seem strange, as most of us try to avoid failure at all costs. What he suggests is that we need to be continually learning new skills, especially ones where we repeatedly fail before we become good at it. So for instance, learning to play a musical instrument or a new language will be far more beneficial for our brains than doing a crossword or sudoku. His point is that doing things that require us to try and try again before we become proficient, challenges our brains and keeps them healthy. He cites a study2 of men who had to memorize over 25,000 streets in central London in order to become taxi drivers. Even though they were already middle aged their hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with memory, increased significantly in size. So make a point of learning new skills regularly and keep on trying until you master them. Life long education has enormous benefits, including increasing one’s earning abilities!
The next big area of research is diet. It is now universally recognized that a bad diet affects every aspect of our health and increases our risk of all chronic diseases, including brain degeneration. So what should we be eating?
A number of studies3,4,5,6 have pointed to a diet high in fruits and vegetables, sea-foods and olive oil (such as the Mediterranean diet), as being beneficial in helping reduce the risk of mental decline. Researchers in one study5, published in March 2023, said “People who scored highest for adhering to the Mediterranean diet had average plaque and tangle amounts in their brains similar to being 18 years younger than people who scored lowest.” An article in Neurology6 about this study said “that the Mediterranean and MIND diets, as well as general increased intake of green and leafy vegetables, seemed to lead to lower build up of abnormal proteins (especially beta-amyloid protein) seen in Alzheimer’s disease. They found that this was the case even in study participants who were not yet showing symptoms of the disease.”
Another study7 had this to say “Those who ate the healthiest diet had an 88% decreased risk of developing dementia and a 92% decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.”
Other studies have pointed to how a diet high in sugars and refined carbohydrates increases the risk. A whole host of studies8,9,10,11,12,13 confirms this. The bottom line is that changing our diets can make a huge difference. For more info on this go to https://www.realhealth4life.co.za/alzheimers-and-dementia
There are also a number of studies that show that taking a good quality multi-vitamin supplement can benefit the brain and protect against dementia. The COSMOS trial14 and its just published follow up trial15 show significant benefits. The investigators estimated that “taking the daily multivitamin slowed cognitive aging by approximately 60%, or the equivalent of 1.8 years over the 3 years of the study”.
There are also studies that show that taking Omega 3 and Vitamin B can do wonders for protecting the brain and could even reverse the damage caused by AD! Strangely enough, Vit B only helps in conjunction with Omega 3. It appears that Omega 3’s benefits are enhanced by Vit B.16, 17
Next let’s look at exercise. Studies18,19 have shown that exercise can play a positive role in reducing the risk of dementia/AD and could even mediate the effects. One study showed that just a 40 minute brisk walk 3 times a week can make a difference.20 Exercise that involves improving balance and co-ordination skills, like yoga, dancing, tai chi, etc. is especially beneficial.
Lastly, social interaction is vital as we get older. Nothing is worse than being cut off from people, so we need to make sure that we get out and interact with people on a regular basis every week. Join a book club, a Bible study group, a volunteer organization, whatever, but get out. Studies show a definite relationship between social interaction, and the lack of it, and mental decline.21,22 However, the interaction needs to be positive. Being around people who constantly put one down, or are constantly critical and negative, has the opposite effect.
A useful tool to help us check our mental health is the Cognitive Function Test from the Food For The Brain organization in the UK. It’s free and it’s recommended that one does it annually to check one’s progress.
It’s clear that the choices we make affect our health, including our mental health. Making good choices can reduce our risk of all chronic diseases, including dementia and AD.
8. Luchsinger JA, Tang M-X ., Shea S, Mayeux R. Hyperinsulinemia and risk of Alzheimer disease. Neurology. 2004 Oct 11;63(7):1187–92.
9. Abbatecola AM, Paolisso G, Lamponi M, Bandinelli S, Lauretani F, Launer L, et al. Insulin Resistance and Executive Dysfunction in Older
Persons. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 2004 Oct;52(10):1713–8.
10. Xu WL, von Strauss E, Qiu CX, Winblad B, Fratiglioni L. Uncontrolled diabetes increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease: a population-based
cohort study. Diabetologia. 2009 Mar 12;52(6):1031–9.
11.Hassing Lb, Grant Md, Hofer Sm, Pedersen Nl, Nilsson Se, Berg S, et al. Type 2 diabetes mellitus contributes to cognitive decline in old age: A
longitudinal population-based study. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. 2004 Jul;10(4):599–607.
13. Roberts RO, Knopman DS, Cha RH, Mielke MM, Pankratz VS, Boeve BF, et al. Diabetes and Elevated Hemoglobin A1c Levels Are Associated with Brain Hypometabolism but Not Amyloid Accumulation. Journal of Nuclear Medicine. 2014 Mar 20;55(5):759–64.