How to Reduce the Risk of Dementia

Columbia Icefield - the largest ice field in the Rocky Mountains. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Columbia Icefield - the largest ice field in the Rocky Mountains. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

Dementia is not a specific illness. It is a combination of symptoms that affect memory, thinking and social abilities. It reduces a person’s ability to perform everyday activities.

According to a report in the Lancet (Prevention of dementia by targeting risk factors – April 21, 2018), dementia epidemic is the greatest global challenge for health and social care in the 21st century.

There are a number of causes of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of a progressive dementia accounting for 60 to 80 per cent of dementia cases.

Over 747,000 Canadians are living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. Worldwide, at least 44 million people are living with dementia – more than the total population of Canada – making the disease a global health crisis that must be addressed. It affects about 14 per cent of Americans over age 71.

Alzheimer’s disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer. In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. Her symptoms included memory loss, language problems, and unpredictable behaviour.

Can we do anything about it?

Dementia involves damage of nerve cells in the brain, which can occur in several areas of the brain. Dementia affects people differently, depending on the area of the brain affected. Finding a cure for something like that is difficult.

In this new Lancet report, a team of international researchers identifies nine key risk factors that together account for about 35 percent of cases. Depending on the cause, some dementia symptoms can be reversed.

Following nine steps can reduce the risk of dementia, but researchers say they need to be undertaken over the course of one’s lifetime. Here is the summary:

1. Education. Having higher education helps. Keep learning new skills through out your life. Keep your brain active.

2. Hypertension. Dementia and high blood pressure are closely linked.

3. Obesity. Obesity is a key risk factor in mid-life. Previous report from the U.K. found that being underweight in mid-life was also associated with an increased risk of dementia. So maintain proper weight.

4. Hearing loss. Hearing loss affects nearly a third of people over 55. Hearing loss can lead to social disengagement, depression, or brain atrophy.

5. Smoking. Smoking has ill effect on cardiovascular health. Cigarette smoke also contains substances that are toxic to the brain.

6. Depression. There are definite links between depression and dementia.

7. Physical inactivity. Research has shown that older adults who exercise are more likely to maintain cognition than those who do not exercise. Studies have suggested tai chi, longer exercise sessions (at least 45 minutes at a time), and resistance training may all have particular benefits for the brain.

8. Social isolation. Loneliness and a lack of physical contact, especially later in life, are linked to dementia.

9. Diabetes. Diabetes is a potential risk for many of the same reasons as obesity.

Finally, keep your brain sharp by playing brain games. Eat healthy with fruits, vegetables and nuts. Exercise. Remember, what is good for the body is good for the brain. Dementia will compromise your lifestyle, put extra burden on your family and will compromise your longevity. Most studies seem to show that the average number of years someone will live with dementia after being diagnosed is around ten years.

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