By Marjorie Broussard, M.D.
For many of us, the thought of losing a battle with dementia can be an unsettling one, especially if a dementia-related disease such as Alzheimer’s runs in the family. While there’s no known cure for dementia (yet), there are steps you can take to reduce your risk and in some cases even reverse symptoms of the disease. Here are some things you might not know about reducing your risk for dementia.
Start by Learning the Ins and Outs
Reducing your risk for dementia starts with understanding what dementia is. Dementia isn’t one specific disease, but rather it’s an umbrella term for when someone has problems with at least two brain functions. Memory loss is the most recognizable and prevalent of these symptoms, but others include impaired language and the inability to perform regular activities or problem-solve. Memory loss alone isn’t a definite signifier of dementia. In fact, memory loss in general can simply be a side effect of normal aging – this is why there must be at least two brain functions affected for the condition to be diagnosed as dementia.
The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, but, as the Alzheimer’s Society points out, there are more than 100 types of dementia. Ultimately, with any form of dementia, signals the brain sends through its neurons to make sense of the world have trouble making connections.
1. Manage Your Stress
Our brains are the perfect machine for dealing with stress short term. If you are at home alone and hear an unfamiliar noise, your brain concentrates all necessary functions on survival. It sends signals to your body to release adrenaline, raising your heart beat and blood pressure, increasing your breath so that oxygen-rich blood circulates to your muscles. It also releases cortisol, which is a stress hormone that keeps your blood sugar and blood pressure higher than normal to help you escape from danger.
That’s all great in the short term, but long-term stress can have a really negative effect on your brain. In fact, it’s been shown that the cortisol the brain releases can do damage to brain cells if those cells are experiencing prolonged exposure to the hormone. This can affect memory. This brain cell damage brought on by long-term stress can make you an easy target for dementia, so managing your stress level is one way to reduce your risk for the disease. Breathe deeply if you’re stressed, make time for yourself to relax during the day, balance time at work with time having fun, and try to be around people that make you laugh. All of these help reduce stress levels and, in turn, reduce your risk for dementia.
2. Exercise Regularly
Studies have shown that the risk of developing dementia can be reduced by as much as 50 percent if patients engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate physical exercise each week. There is also evidence that exercise may slow down deterioration in patients who have already started to develop dementia symptoms.
To make the most of your workout, try balancing cardio and strength training.
3. Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Getting regular, deep sleep improves memory function as well as the ability to create new memories. If your sleep is disrupted at night, there’s a good chance that your body is releasing a protein called beta-amyloid. This protein is what’s called chemically “sticky,” meaning over time it can build up into plaques that make sleeping difficult and can block the cells from reaching the synapses in your brain. Getting a good night’s sleep reduces the amount of this protein released in your brain.
4. Use It or Lose It
Recent studies have shown that constant brain stimulation is perhaps the most important aspect of lessening the risk for dementia. In fact, research suggests that people with college educations aren’t as at risk for dementia, possibly because studying in a post-secondary environment has helped them to build up stronger neural pathways. To keep your brain stimulated, try learning something new, like a musical instrument or a foreign language. Do a daily crossword puzzle, Sudoku puzzle, or strategy game. Practice memorizing something, like a map of South America. Change your daily routine – take a different route home, reorganize your home office, or try doing things with your non-dominant hand. All of these things help strengthen your brain and create new neural pathways.
5. Maintain an Active Social Life
The more we interact with other people, the more our brain is engaged in activity outside of ourselves. As social creatures, our human brains thrive outside of regular isolation, so try to get out and do quality things with other people. For those who aren’t social butterflies – don’t worry! Engaging with others doesn’t have to be in a large-group setting for it to do your brain some good. Just meeting a friend or two for lunch and talking about your day is often enough. Other things you can do to get out are join a fitness club, take a group class, or volunteer.
Dr. Marjorie Broussard is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Kelsey-Seybold’s West Grand Parkway Clinic. She helps her patients manage chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Her clinical interests include preventive medicine and women’s health.