If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. Ignored physical and/or cognitive skills tend to decline. Reduced physical activity often results in lower fitness including body strength and stamina, increased weight gain, decreased flexibility, heightened chance of injuries, and poorer overall health. Decreased mental activity may lead to reduced understanding, concentrating, reasoning, and a higher chance of dementia.
The onset of dementia can, however, be slowed with several easy and scientifically proven lifestyle changes. Before casually dismissing these as just being all about getting more sleep and drinking more water, know that there are many other positive choices a person can make. These are simple practices that can be mentally and physically beneficial, achievable, and fun. By making these lifestyle choices in your 40s, a person can reduce his/her risk of dementia later.
Here are several suggestions:
1) Manage health problems including diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
On a related note, exercise regularly and include both cardiovascular activity and strength training. Exercising fills the body with fresh blood and oxygen and sends it to the brain. The human brain loves oxygen! The more it gets, the better it feels. According to Harvard Medical School, “exercise changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills”. Exercise causes the brain to release chemicals that improve it by growing new blood vessels, improving the health of brain cells and growing new brain cells. It has been shown that regular exercise may protect against Alzheimer’s disease, one type of dementia.
How much exercise does someone need?
Aim to get at least 30 minutes of exercise each day. People new to working out or who are more dedicated gym rats can benefit by mixing up their activities to target different muscle groups and avoid boredom.
As a novice runner, I have mapped out several neighborhood routes to mix up my distance, terrain, and scenery. Admittedly, it can be difficult to get out the door some days, but I routinely feel far better for doing so. My biggest fitness expense has been replacement running shoes … pricey gym memberships are often unnecessary. Take the dog for a walk (or adopt a dog as a new and willing walking companion), shovel snowy sidewalks, or clean out a closet to move and burn some calories.
In addition, eat well. The human body works much the same as a vehicle. Using the wrong fuel for the vehicle results in poor performance, mileage, and service calls. The fuel a person feeds themselves (i.e. food) can have similar effects.
What is the best dementia-reducing diet?
Many food and nutrition experts, including CNN Health, recommend the Mediterranean diet as a means of combating dementia. This diet primarily consists of green, leafy vegetables, fresh fruit, whole grains, beans, berries, chicken/turkey, and fish – all of which are described as “brain foods” that can help keep brain cells healthy. When you draft up your next grocery-shopping list, remember that heart-healthy foods are brain-healthy too.
2) Stay involved socially.
There’s nothing like a worldwide pandemic to remind us all of the importance of socialization. People like to gather and do so in different settings with numerous benefits. By joining a bowling league, going for group runs, or attending community activities, people can gain many health benefits from the company of others, some of which may aid in preventing dementia further down the line.
New friendships can open new doors
A friend of mine recently mentioned that she regularly gives plasma. She has met some new people, enjoys the regular camaraderie, and has even formed a plasma donation book club with others! Current friends are also important. I’ve made it a practice to meet with another friend for coffee and conversation. Even if we can get together only once a month and play armchair coach for our local hockey team, seeing a familiar face and bantering can feel good. If meeting a friend personally proves difficult, catch up with a phone call or Zoom/Facetime.
Search for “meditation” online to find factual articles touting its benefits in publications including The New York Times, Scientific American, Psychology Today, and The Washington Post. Benefits of meditation include calming the brain, helping it to avoid being paralyzed by fear, and preserving brain functions.
A study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found that people who meditated for an average of 20 years had better, healthier brains than non-meditators as they aged. They lost less brain volume and improved all areas of their brains by training it through meditation.
4) Stay mentally alert.
Individuals are far more productive and efficient when they are physically alert, and the same can be said for those remaining mentally sharp. People can exercise their brains by learning, reading, engaging in stimulating conversation, and working on puzzles.
Remember that muscles, either physical or mental, can be safely stretched. People can choose to learn more about a current interest or something new. Pick up a course calendar from a post-secondary school and browse available classes, Google search “(subject matter of interest) training”, read a “how-to” book from the bookstore/public library, or watch instructional YouTube videos.
The growing number of dementia cases
Considering the increased commonality of dementia and dementia caregiving, these recommended lifestyle changes are certainly worth introducing into a person’s life. According to the National Alliance of Caregiving (NAC) and AARP's report, 26% of the 47.9 family caregivers ages 18+ care for an individual living with Alzheimer's or dementia; this has risen 4% from 2015. Those numbers are expected to continually increase. Whatever a person can do to fight off dementia either temporarily or permanently would be wise. Remember, how we choose to live can have a dramatic impact on how we live.