Just about everyone knows someone who has dementia, a progressive brain disorder that gradually erases memory and thinking skills. Many of us are concerned about developing Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia as we age.
Some risk factors for dementia, such as age and genes, can’t be helped.
But “there are things we can do that may help delay the onset or progression of symptoms,” says UNC Health geriatrician Emily Cetrone, MD, who treats patients with dementia and is often asked by their family members about prevention.
One thing to understand: Dementia is not a normal part of aging; it damages the brain, and it is caused by many different diseases.
“We are still working to better understand all of the risk factors involved and how we can best treat and prevent it, but with taking care of your body and brain throughout life, you can lower your risk,” Dr. Cetrone says.
Here are eight tips from Dr. Cetrone.
1. Do exercise you enjoy.
“Diet and exercise play a huge role in helping us avoid or delay dementia,” Dr. Cetrone says.
Particularly in our middle years, exercise provides numerous benefits, strengthening our heart, lungs and muscles, which help keep other organs—including the brain—well-supplied with oxygen. Choose activities you enjoy, such as walking, dancing, bowling, bicycling, water aerobics or gardening. Try to avoid sitting for hours every day.
“Try to stand for five minutes of each hour you sit,” Dr. Cetrone says. “It’s best to get 30 minutes of more vigorous activity at least five times a week.”
2. Add healthy foods to your diet.
The MIND diet has been shown to slow the onset and progression of dementia and cardiovascular disease. It’s largely plant-based, limits saturated fats and sugar, and emphasizes anti-inflammatory foods such as berries, leafy green vegetables and olive oil.
But don’t think you need to fix your eating habits all at once. Make changes gradually so they stick and become habit.
“Some people have a hard time following the diet to the letter,” Dr. Cetrone says. “I tell them that the point of the MIND diet is to add in as many fresh foods as possible, especially vegetables and fruits, and to substitute whole grains for more refined ones.”
It’s best to limit the amount of red meat, added sugars and processed foods you eat, for body and brain health.
3. Improve your sleep.
Take steps to get adequate and restful sleep, Dr. Cetrone says. This starts with developing and sticking to a consistent bedtime routine to signal your body that it’s time for sleep.
“I see people whose sleep schedule is in disarray,” she says. “Maybe they have just retired and haven’t developed a routine yet. I ask them to think back to when they were sleeping well, and try that schedule.”
Two more sleep tips: Beware of napping too much and relying on sleep aids.
“One small nap in the afternoon is OK, but if you sleep for hours during the day, that will disrupt your sleep at night,” Dr. Cetrone says. “And having good sleep hygiene, for example minimizing what you eat and drink before bed, limiting caffeine and getting exercise, is so much more effective than sleep medications.”
You may need to address health concerns that disrupt your sleep, including urinary issues, pain, breathing problems and congestion.
4. Work with your doctor to maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Vascular dementia occurs when the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain is interrupted and blood vessels are damaged. Minor or major strokes can increase the risk of dementia, though not everyone who has a stroke will develop dementia. Research shows a strong link between cardiovascular disease and damage to the brain and blood vessels.
“We don’t understand all the factors involved in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, but we know it is important to protect the blood flow to your brain,” she says.
5. Commit to quit smoking.
Of course, if you smoke, you know it’s bad for you. Anti-smoking campaigns often focus on lung disease and cancer, but smoking also damages blood vessels and increases your blood pressure. This makes blood clots and stroke more likely and increases the risk of developing or worsening dementia.
Research has found smoking is bad for cognition even if the smoker doesn’t have high blood pressure or diabetes. Older people who smoke fare worse on thinking tests than those who don’t.
If you smoke, it’s never too late to quit. Talk to your doctor for help.
6. Minimize alcohol.
Heavy alcohol consumption over time may damage your cardiovascular system and has been associated with higher risks of developing dementia, Dr. Cetrone says. Drinking too much alcohol can damage the brain over time, and in some people, that leads to dementia. Alcohol use also can worsen the symptoms of dementia that is due to other causes.
Past studies have suggested benefits of drinking small amounts of red wine, but the benefits or risks are undetermined and probably vary from person to person.
7. Address your mental health.
Anxiety and depression may be risk factors for dementia. Group or individual therapy, including support groups for coping with grief or anxiety, can be beneficial.
Also, individual or group therapy for caregivers may help relieve some of the stress of caring for a loved one.
8. Socialize and seek fun.
Researchers are looking for keys to the causes of dementia and ways to treat or prevent the symptoms. But meanwhile, try to connect with other people and enjoy your life. This is true for people with no symptoms and for those struggling with memory loss and thinking problems.
Some tactics people try to improve memory, such as trying to strengthen the brain with crossword puzzles or number games, are fine to do if they are sources of enjoyment, but they aren’t miracle tools, Dr. Cetrone says.
“It is much more effective to spend time socializing and engaging with others,” which is one reason addressing hearing loss is so important, to maintain the quality of those connections, she says. “The more we can do to be healthy before symptoms start, the better off we will be.”
If you are concerned about risks or symptoms of dementia, talk to your doctor, or find one near you.