Twelve tips to help prevent the onset of dementia
Evidence suggests that if key risk factors for causing dementia were addressed, then fewer people would have it. Ailin Quinlan talks to expert, Professor William O'Connor about ways to stave off the condition.
1. Wear a helmet
Head injury has been linked to early onset of Alzheimer's later in life, says Professor O'Connor.
Some boxers, as well as people who otherwise suffer a head injury, can have a higher risk of contracting Alzheimer's disease, which constitutes about 70% of dementia cases.
"It's therefore wise to make a point of wearing a helmet if you play sports which can result in a head injury. For the same reason, it's also a very good idea to always wear your seat belt in the car," he adds.
Make sure your diet includes lots of vegetables, (below) particularly green leafy ones, and fruit, herbs like rosemary and sage and plenty of fish oil. Vegetables and fruit are packed with health-giving antioxidants which stop inflammation, O'Connor explains.
"Antioxidants are like a fire blanket on inflammation," he declares.
Eat the rosemary and sage which are cognitively enhancing because they contain chemicals which replace the main neurotransmitter damaged in dementia - acetycholine - which is involved in high-level thought.
3. Use it or lose it
"Keep your brain active," says O'Connor. "It's a case of use it or lose it.
"The more you challenge the brain, as you do in education, the fitter and healthier it becomes, which means it can withstand attack in older age from problems such as stress, depression or trauma.
"The more educated you are and the more effective you've been in using your brain during your life, the stronger its ability to resist attack," he says.
4. Eat less sugar
We all know what sugar can do to the teeth and to the figure - but did you know that it's now being linked to dementia?
"Most people with type two diabetes develop the diabetes because they eat so much sugary food and take so little exercise that the body cannot handle the sugar," O'Connor explains. New research has shown that diabetes, and the rebound hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) it causes, may exacerbate the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
5. Lose weight
Scientists now believe there is a link between mid-life obesity and a higher risk of developing dementia.
"Once the body is extremely overweight or obese, the deposits of fat can become unstable," O'Connor explains. "The fat becomes metabolically or chemically unstable and can become inflamed.
"That inflammation may then spread around the body - including to the brain. Inflammation in the brain is believed to be linked to dementia," he says.
During a study in the US with the anti-inflammatory drug ibuprofen, he explains, researchers noticed that of the patients who later went on to develop dementia, those who took the drug had a more delayed onset of dementia than people who didn't.
"This led to the theory that dementia, including Alzheimer's, may actually be a form of brain inflammation. Obesity is a source of inflammation," he says, adding that the process which can trigger Alzheimer's can begin in an person who is obese in their 20s or 30s."
6. Don't smoke
Smoking causes lung inflammation, says O'Connor. "It obstructs the lungs, and can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
"This means the lungs are not able to get as much oxygen as they need and you end up damaging the lungs, and the lung tissue."
Insufficient oxygen supplies to the brain lowers the brain's energy levels, thereby impairing its ability to protect itself.
7. Treat your depression
It's now believed that depression can be a factor in the onset of dementia. "There is evidence now that depression may be a brain inflammation in the frontal part of the brain - while Alzheimer's is an inflammation in the hippocampus," says O'Connor.
If you're suffering from depression, get it treated, he says, because inflammation weakens the ability of the brain to fight infection.
When we are depressed, we also don't always eat well and often don't feel like exercising.
Therefore, warns O'Connor, depression can affect the brain both on a physical and psychological level.
8. Be physically active
"If you're physically inactive, you're not introducing oxygen to the body - and the brain needs huge amounts of oxygen because it's so active, even during the night.
"The brain can use more oxygen in some phases of sleep than when we're awake during the day," he says. Depriving the brain of oxygen prevents it from learning, ie making new connections and repairing itself - let alone getting on with the normal processes of development, he warns.
9. Watch your blood pressure
High blood pressure is a major cause of stroke, which deprives the brain of life-giving oxygen.
"You can end up with dementia through a series of mini-strokes," says O'Connor.
These can gradually lead to a change in the person's character, which eventually, without appropriate treatment, may develop into full-blown dementia. So avoid a lifestyle which can contribute to high blood pressure - reduce your stress levels, make sure you get sufficient, good quality sleep and avoid drugs linked to high blood pressure such as nicotine, advises O'Connor.
10. Eat fish
"A diet rich in fish is a diet low in cholesterol," says O'Connor, who advises that it's sensible to eat oily fish because of the proven link between high cholesterol and dementia.
"When the medical profession started to treat cholesterol with cholesterol-lowering medication called statins, they discovered they could also delay the onset of dementia for about seven years.
"There is evidence that the only drug known to temporarily reverse the onset of Alzheimer's or dementia is a statin," O'Connor adds.
11. Buy a smartphone and play video games
Embrace new technology and experiment with it, he advises. "Get a smartphone because it's good for your brain to work out how to use it properly, especially if you're older," says O'Connor.
Play video games with your grandchildren - it will help to keep you mentally on your toes, he believes, while playing bridge is a great way to wake up the brain.
"Bridge is a game of memory and strategy. It's very challenging for the brain and is also a highly sociable activity."
12. Try some brain-teasers
Use your non-preferred hand once in a while for activities such as brushing your teeth or hair.
This challenges your brain because you are carrying out an unfamiliar activity. Try wearing your watch upside down - this also forces your brain to do some work.
"It requires the hippocampus to do a mental rotation in order to work out the correct time," says O'Connor, who says the hippocampus is the area of the brain most vulnerable to dementia.
And try learning to juggle - this is a great exercise in hand-eye coordination, says O'Connor. Buy three oranges now and get on with it, he says. "It's part of a process which helps your brain fight the injury and infection that may lead to dementia."