Avoiding dementia

What is dementia?

When we think of dementia, we naturally think that only elderly people are affected. But increasingly we are seeing younger and younger sufferers.

The term ‘dementia’ describes a collection of symptoms caused by  brain disorders. It affects thinking, behaviour, memory and the ability to perform everyday tasks. First signs are often a deterioration in memory, particularly short-term, as in what was done yesterday, and there may be a tendency to forget words or names. There may be difficulties with complex tasks such as driving or managing money, which were not apparent before. Gradually dementia can affect general organisational skills, shopping, getting dressed, reading, writing and speech. In later stages eating and toileting can become affected.

There are several different types of dementia, the most common form being Alzheimer’s Disease. However there are a number of other forms and some researchers have identified up to 50 different variations.

The causes of dementia are still unclear, so there are at present neither cures nor definitive prevention measures. It is thought that there are probably a number of causative factors, probably working in combination. There is an increasing amount of research that suggests lifestyle and health characteristics may be key agents.

Can we avoid it?

Studies suggest that dementia-type diseases can start to take a foothold in the brain up to 25 years before symptoms start to show, so we need to be brain-health aware long before we reach old or even middle age. The Nun Study of Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease, a continuing longitudinal study begun in 1986 in the USA showed some significant findings amongst a population of similar environmental and other influences, namely Roman Catholic Nuns of a particular order.  Asked to write a biographical essay upon entry to the order about the age of 22 it was found that:

… an essay’s lack of linguistic density (e.g., complexity, vivacity, fluency) functioned as a significant predictor of its author’s risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease in old age…. Roughly 80% of nuns whose writing was measured as lacking in linguistic density went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease in old age; meanwhile, of those whose writing was not lacking, only 10% later developed the disease.

(Wikipedia: Nun Study at

What about for the rest of us, who don’t live in a controlled community?

Current thinking about risk factors identifies both modifiable and non-modifiable factors.

Non-modifiable factors include your genetics and your age, and are not able to be controlled or changed through changes in lifestyle or habits.

It is thought that modifiable factors can potentially change your levels of risk. These include diet, physical activity, blood pressure and cholesterol levels, level of social engagement, and whether you engage in mental stimulation.

As for all cardio-vascular functions, if you develop Type 2 diabetes, if you are obese, if you smoke, or if you use certain drugs, you could be at greatly increased risk. Recent research has also shown that repeated and untreated head injuries, including concussions from contact sports such as football or boxing are a major risk factor. These are often factors that seem to contribute to earlier onset dementia.

Drinking alcohol in excess may also increase the risk. There is probably no need to be teetotal, however; some research suggests that small to moderate alcohol consumption can actually reduce the risk. But no more than two standard drinks a day, preferably less, and have one or two alcohol-free days per week.

Depression can also be a risk factor for dementia. This is probably associated with chronic, lasting depression and the withdrawal from social contact seen in both conditions possibly plays some part. If you do suffer from chronic depression, try to alleviate the cause or, if this is not possible, seek treatment.

It is disputed how much diet plays in the development of dementia. It is possible that a high intake of saturated fats may increase the risk and that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables may reduce it. Certain healthy fats, such as those found in oily fish are supposed to be good for the heart and brain. In general doctors recommend following the national dietary guidelines.

They also recommend regular physical exercise – at least 30 minutes most days of the week. As the brain uses 20% of the body’s blood supply, the blood flow is important, and exercise gets the heart pumping. It may also stimulate further brain cell growth or resilience.

It is also suggested that exercising your brain may work, in the sense of “use it or lose it”. Certainly developments in the study of neuroplasticity in recent years have shown that new neural pathways can be created at any age. (Previously it was thought that no new brain cells and pathways could be after about the age of 25.) It is thought that keeping your brain active may build up or strengthen reserve or back-up pathways.

Think of the people you know in advanced age whose minds are sharp. Almost invariably, they are very engaged socially with their families, friends and their community. They also challenge themselves to learn new things – often doing courses and classes in all kinds of things, indulging in hobbies, learning foreign languages and other new skills, engaging in cultural activities. Just socialising with friends is valuable too, because being part of a group of good friends seems to be important.

Doing or learning something new builds new brain connections, so giving yourself new challenges forces the brain out of the ruts it may be inclined to get into as we get older.

Activities that combine social, physical and mental activity theoretically provide even greater benefit. Going for a walk with a friend could be beneficial because it combines all three types of activity. Dancing is considered extra beneficial because of its complexity.

However, any, all or none of this might work. The research at present can only give suggestions and these seem to vary by the day and the source. It might be good advice just to keep doing what you enjoy doing and what makes you passionate.

I’m just summing up the general information about dementia. Don’t take my word for it. This is a serious issue and this post does not claim to be medically accurate. If you have concerns about your own or someone else’s mental health, see a doctor – the sooner the better.

Information above was taken from several sources, but especially from Your Brain Matters: A Guide to Healthy Hearts & Minds, a pamphlet from Alzheimer’s Australia.