Although getting older is the biggest risk factor for dementia, evidence shows there are many ways you can keep your brain healthy and reduce your own risk.
Doing regular physical activity is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of dementia. It’s good for your heart, circulation, weight and mental wellbeing. Being active several times a week maintains the size of the region of the brain associated with memory.
A new study showed that a hormone released during exercise may protect the brain against Alzheimer’s disease. It may also explain the known positive effects of exercise on mental performance.
Irisin is a hormone generated by muscle tissue that is carried around the body in the bloodstream. Fernana de Felice at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and colleagues found that people with Alzheimer’s had lower levels of the hormone compared with healthy individuals.
In tests with mice, the team could induce learning and memory deficits by cutting out irisin and could reverse the effects by restoring the hormone. When irisin signalling was blocked in mice with a rodent version of Alzheimer’s, the brain benefits of physical exercise were lost.
It’s not about just exercising for a certain amount of minutes or hours per week. It’s more about how active you are, how much learning you are doing in your day-to-day life, and whether you are meeting new people.
The brain changes that cause dementia, can start years or even decades before symptoms develop. If you live a healthy lifestyle now, you are reducing the chances that these brain changes will happen.
When you are of working age, you need to pay attention to your physical risk factors, particularly high blood pressure, because heart health is linked to brain health and what’s good for the heart is good for the brain.
Once you retire, it’s essential to stay mentally, physically and socially active. Regularly challenging yourself mentally seems to build up the brain’s ability to cope with disease. There are a variety of hobbies and pursuits that target mental, physical and social stimulation:
- Dancing or any aerobic activity you enjoy and will keep on doing.
- Tai chi or yoga is good for balance, staying flexible, and may prevent you from falling.
- Stay connected. Joining a social club or volunteering for a community service are good ways to stay socially active.
- Learning a new language. Scientists in India and the United Kingdom found that the bilingual patients enrolled in a study of people with dementia developed their disease on average 4.5 years later compared to patients who spoke only one language. In South Africa we are spoiled for choice.
- Learning a musical instrument could protect against dementia, according to research. By saving energy, researchers claim musicians keep their minds fresher, which could slow the onset of dementia.
- Travelling is one of the best things that you can do for your health. You are moving around (active), learning new things and it is also excellent for your mental health.
- Playing bridge, chess and other strategic games. Using a computer in late life to play games or surf the internet can cut your cognitive decline risk in half. Use it also to stay in contact with loved ones via social media.
Other tips for looking after your health and reducing your risk of dementia.
Seek help for depression
Depression is a likely risk factor for dementia. If you feel you might be getting depressed, seek help early. If you often feel low, anxious or irritable, talk to your GP.
Get a good night’s sleep
Sleep is important for your mental wellbeing and it may reduce your risk of dementia. A good night’s sleep for many people is around eight hours.
Get a hearing check
Hearing loss is a possible risk factor for dementia. Many people have some hearing loss as they age. If you’re concerned about your hearing, speak to your GP about a hearing test. This will show up any issues, which you can then look at ways of managing. Often, managing hearing loss works best when you start doing it early on.
References and sources:
A hormone released during exercise might protect against Alzheimer’s. Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2189845-a-hormone-released-during-exercise-might-protect-against-alzheimers/
How to reduce your risk for dementia. Available at: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/risk-factors-and-prevention/how-reduce-your-risk-dementia
Worried about dementia? Learn a second language. Available at: https://www.livescience.com/41002-worried-about-dementia-learn-a-second-language.html
Learning a new language and playing a musical instrument is the key to avoiding dementia. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-5740267/Learning-new-language-playing-musical-instrument-key-avoiding-dementia.html