We all likely know someone whose memory has started to fade, whose recognition of familiar faces has dimmed, or whose daily tasks have become mounting challenges. It may not be just an occasional lapse in memory but rather a symptom of something much larger.
Globally, there are 47 million individuals living with dementia, a number projected to soar to 75 million in less than a decade. By 2050? We’re looking at a number more than tripled.(1)It’s not just statistics; it’s our neighbours, friends, and family. Dementia, in its many forms, reshapes how we understand aging and cognitive health. Let’s journey through the various aspects of this condition, shedding light on a challenge that touches us all.
Dementia is a general term that describes a group of cognitive disorders characterized by a decline in memory, thinking, and other cognitive abilities that interfere with daily life. There are several types of dementia, each with unique characteristics and underlying causes. While not an exhaustive list, some of the most common types of dementia include.
Alzheimer’s Disease—Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60-70% of cases. It is characterized by the accumulation of abnormal protein deposits (amyloid plaques and tau tangles) in the brain, which leads to the progressive loss of cognitive function.
Vascular Dementia—Vascular dementia is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain, often due to small strokes or other vascular problems. The symptoms can vary depending on the location and extent of the damage to the brain’s blood vessels.
Lewy Body Dementia—Lewy body dementia is characterized by the presence of abnormal protein deposits called Lewy bodies in the brain. It shares some symptoms with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease and can include hallucinations, fluctuations in alertness, and movement problems.
Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD)—FTD is a group of rare disorders that primarily affect the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. It can lead to changes in personality, behaviour, and language abilities. There are several subtypes of FTD, including behavioural variant FTD, primary progressive aphasia, and semantic variant primary progressive aphasia.
Parkinson’s Disease Dementia—While Parkinson’s disease primarily affects movement, some individuals with Parkinson’s disease may also develop cognitive impairments over time, leading to Parkinson’s disease dementia.
Huntington’s Disease—Huntington’s disease is a genetic disorder that affects both movement and cognition. It typically leads to progressive dementia along with motor symptoms.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome—This type of dementia is often related to chronic alcohol abuse and is caused by a thiamine deficiency (vitamin B1). It is characterized by memory problems, confusion, and neurological symptoms.
The signs and symptoms of dementia can vary depending on the underlying cause, but some common indicators include:
- Memory loss
- Difficulty with communication
- Impaired reasoning and judgment
- Impaired visual perception
- Challenges with daily tasks
- Personality and mood changes
- Difficulty with abstract thinking
- Misplacing items
- Social withdrawal
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Inability to recognize familiar faces
It’s important to note that each type of dementia may have its own distinct progression and set of symptoms. Accurate diagnosis is essential for proper management and treatment. If you or someone you know is experiencing cognitive decline, it is important to consult with a healthcare professional for a thorough evaluation and diagnosis.
Risk Factors For Developing Dementia
Although age is the most prominent risk factor associated with the development of dementia, dementia itself is not an inevitable consequence of growing older. Though it is often seen as a condition that lies beyond our control, it’s important to recognize that there are numerous factors we can actively influence to significantly mitigate our risk. According to the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, lifestyle factors are at play in up to 40% of dementia cases, and making simple adjustments to these habits can effectively reduce your risk in some cases.(2)
- High Blood Pressure
- Lack of Physical Activity
- Poor Diet
- High Alcohol Consumption
- Low Levels of Cognitive Engagement
- Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
- Hearing Loss
- Social Isolation
- Air Pollution
- Poor Oral Health
The good news is there are several ways to decrease your risk of developing dementia and keep your cognitive function strong as you grow older.
9 Strategies To Keep Your Brain Sharp and Reduce Dementia Risk
Considering that your brain impacts every aspect of your life, it is essential to take care of it! Even for individuals at a high risk of dementia, a comprehensive preventative approach that includes dietary changes, exercise, brain training, and the management of metabolic and vascular risk factors can significantly reduce cognitive decline. In no particular order of importance, here are nine simple strategies integral to fostering a healthy brain throughout our lives.
1 – Stay Active
One of the most powerful strategies to reduce the risk of dementia is through cardiovascular fitness. Exercise improves blood flow to the brain, promotes neuroplasticity, and reduces inflammation and oxidative stress, all of which contribute to maintaining cognitive function as we age. Engaging in regular physical activity leads to an increase in the levels of a protein known as PGC-1alpha. This protein is instrumental in promoting the creation of new mitochondria, the energy-producing powerhouses within our cells.
Research supports that individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s disease tend to have lower levels of PGC-1alpha in their brains.(3) Cells containing higher levels of this protein produce less of the toxic amyloid protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
In one study, researchers discovered a remarkable correlation between women who maintained high cardiovascular fitness levels in midlife and a reduced risk of developing dementia. This study tracked a population over a span of 44 years. Astonishingly, the women with the highest level of fitness, when compared to those of moderate fitness, were associated with an 88% decrease in the risk of dementia.(4) That is a staggering result! As you’ve heard me say time and time again, the advantages of regular exercise cannot be understated. This study serves as yet another compelling illustration of why integrating more physical activity into your daily life can yield significant benefits.
Exercise also triggers the release of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF serves as a vital component in preserving existing brain cells and even stimulates the conversion of brain stem cells into new neurons, effectively promoting brain growth.
So move that body to boost your brain!
2 – Get Adequate Sleep
Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to cognitive impairment and an increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Getting adequate, QUALITY sleep each night is essential for brain health. During deep sleep, the glymphatic system engages in the process of clearing out waste products and toxins, such as beta-amyloid proteins, which are associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease.(5) As sleep helps to regulate neurotransmitter levels such as serotonin and dopamine, it is vital for memory consolidation and cognitive function. It allows the brain to organize and store information acquired during the day, aiding in the retention of knowledge and the ability to make sound decisions. Aim for 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night for a healthy, well-functioning brain. For tips to optimize your sleep, click HERE for a previous blog I wrote on the subject.
3 – Maintain Mental Agility
Keeping your mind active and engaged can have protective effects on various neurobiological processes imperative to cognitive health. Engaging in mentally stimulating activities enhances neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to form new neural connections and adapt to damage or loss of function due to aging, injury, or disease. They promote neurogenesis, particularly in the hippocampus, which is essential for memory and learning, and can also increase synaptic density, correlating with improved cognitive performance by enhancing neuronal communication.
Acquiring new skills, like learning a new language or picking up a new instrument, requires your brain to form new neural connections, which have been associated with cognitive benefits. Engaging in arts, crafts, writing, or other creative endeavours can stimulate different parts of the brain. Attend workshops, enroll in courses, or try new hobbies. The act of constantly learning keeps the brain active by stimulating neuroplasticity and cognitive reserve, fostering brain health, resilience, and adaptability. Even the simple act of reading is beneficial—regular reading not only provides new information for your brain to process but also requires the mental organization and retrieval of memories.
These activities not only stimulate the brain but also can be enjoyable and provide a sense of accomplishment and well-being, which itself has a positive impact on cognitive health.
4 – Eliminate Toxins
To support the well-being of not only your brain but overall health, it’s essential to minimize exposure to certain toxins.
Aluminum—This substance has the ability to breach the protective blood-brain barrier and has been directly associated with Alzheimer’s disease.(6) Sources of aluminum exposure include antiperspirants, nonstick cookware, beverage containers, and cooking foil.
Alcohol—Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to cognitive impairments, memory problems, and an increased risk of developing alcohol-related dementia. Limit alcohol intake or avoid it altogether.
Dental Amalgam Fillings—Dental fillings containing amalgam, which consists of 50% mercury, pose a significant risk of heavy metal toxicity. If you have amalgam fillings and are generally healthy, you may want to consult with a biological dentist to remove them.
EMF Radiation from Electronic Devices—Radiation emitted by cellphones, Wi-Fi routers, computers, and tablets not in airplane mode is strongly associated with various neuropsychiatric disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease. These microwaves affect calcium channels in cells, particularly those in the brain. The stimulation of these channels leads to the release of neurotransmitters, neuroendocrine hormones, and highly damaging reactive oxygen species, significantly increasing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Limit your exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) by turning off your Wi-Fi at night, avoiding carrying your cell phone on your person, and refraining from keeping electronic devices in your bedroom. Click HERE for a blog I have written on the topic for more comprehensive strategies to minimize your exposure.
5 – Meditate
Engaging in regular meditation improves your brain’s connectivity, helps you stay focused, and even makes your brain more adaptable. It also has the potential to help maintain the integrity of brain grey matter and lower the chances of cognitive decline.(7) Stress is identified as a factor that can negatively impact cognitive health. Practices like mindfulness meditation not only act as a mental exercise but also help manage stress levels. Studies utilizing neuroimaging techniques have demonstrated that regular meditation practice can lead to a reduction in the activity of the amygdala(a crucial brain structure responsible for emotional response), effectively diminishing stress and anxiety levels.(8)
6 – Cultivate Optimism
Optimism has a profound impact on brain health and may help stave off dementia. Research studies have shown that optimism is associated with slower cognitive decline, larger brain volumes, and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.(9) Having a positive mindset not only fosters stress reduction and healthy behaviours but also enhances cognitive reserve, making it a valuable asset for preserving brain health in later life. Embracing optimism can be a practical step toward maintaining cognitive vitality.
7 – Eat A Healthy Diet
The importance of maintaining a proper diet has never been more critical, especially when it comes to safeguarding our cognitive health.
Choose real, preferably organic food—Prioritize organic grass-fed meats and animal products. Fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants are particularly beneficial for slowing age-related cognitive decline. Avoid processed foods, which contain harmful ingredients like refined sugar, artificial sweeteners, glutinous grains, genetically modified components, and pesticides that are detrimental to your brain.
Replace refined carbohydrates with healthy fats—Contrary to common belief, your brain doesn’t primarily rely on carbohydrates and sugars for energy. Instead, it thrives on healthy fats like saturated animal fats and animal-based omega-3s. Stay away from trans fats and hydrogenated fats found in vegetable oils like canola and soybean oil.
Avoid gluten—Gluten negatively impacts the blood-brain barrier and increases gut permeability, allowing proteins to enter the bloodstream, leading to autoimmunity and inflammation, both of which contribute to Alzheimer’s development.
Optimize your gut microbiome—Strengthen your gut health by avoiding processed foods, antibacterial products, antibiotics, and fluoridated water. Enhance your gut flora by regularly consuming cultured and fermented foods or by using high-quality probiotics.
8 – Prioritize Oral Health
Research has unveiled a concerning link between poor oral hygiene and an increased risk of dementia.(10) Gum disease (gingivitis and periodontitis), often a consequence of inadequate oral care, can lead to chronic inflammation. This inflammation may trigger the release of inflammatory molecules into the bloodstream, potentially reaching the brain and contributing to neuroinflammation—a common feature in various forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Moreover, the loss of natural teeth, a common outcome of neglected oral health, can lead to dietary changes and nutritional deficiencies, which can adversely affect brain health. Recognizing and addressing the connection between poor oral hygiene and dementia risk highlights the importance of maintaining good oral health throughout life as a potential means of reducing the risk of this debilitating cognitive condition.
9 – Stay Socially Engaged
Humans are naturally social creatures. Until about a century ago, most people lived in close-knit communities. Extended families often lived together or in nearby towns and villages, creating strong connections and interactions that are less common today.
The importance of social engagement for our well-being cannot be overstated. Research shows that regular social interactions benefit our brains by reducing stress and depression, which are known contributors to cognitive decline. These interactions also help build cognitive reserves, which are crucial for mental resilience as we age.
Conversely, social isolation can have severe negative effects on our mental health. It can increase the risk of stress and depression and lead to reduced physical and cognitive activity. According to research from Johns Hopkins, socially isolated older adults have a 27% higher chance of developing dementia than their peers who have greater social connections.(11) However, there are proactive steps you can take to foster meaningful connections and combat isolation:
- Participate in clubs or groups related to your interests, whether it’s a book club, a sports league, a hobbyist group, or a community organization. These gatherings provide opportunities to connect with like-minded individuals.
- Volunteer your time. Volunteering not only benefits your community but also keeps you socially active. Find a cause you’re passionate about and dedicate some of your time to helping others.
- Make an effort to maintain relationships with family and friends. Regular phone calls, video chats, or in-person visits can help you stay connected. If you know of a friend or family member who lives alone, make the effort to reach out to them, share a meal together, or invite them out with you.
- Attend social events, gatherings, or parties whenever possible. Even if you’re introverted, occasional social outings can be beneficial.
- Enroll in courses or workshops that interest you. Whether it’s cooking, painting, or a new language, learning something new alongside others can be a great way to socialize.
- Utilize social media, online forums, and messaging apps to connect with people who share your interests. Online communities can be a valuable source of social interaction.
- Consider joining a fitness class or group exercise activity. Not only does this promote physical health, but it also offers opportunities for socializing. Senior centers often host a variety of social activities and programs designed to promote mental and social well-being for older adults.
- Participate in local community events, such as town meetings, neighbourhood cleanups, or fundraisers. These activities foster a sense of belonging.
The road to cognitive health is paved with the choices we make each and every day. Don’t wait until you or a loved one shows signs of decline. The power lies in your hands to take preventative steps today.
- Qin W, Haroutunian V, Katsel P, Cardozo CP, Ho L, Buxbaum JD, Pasinetti GM. PGC-1alpha expression decreases in the Alzheimer’s disease brain as a function of dementia. Arch Neurol. 2009 Mar;66(3):352-61. doi: 10.1001/archneurol.2008.588. PMID: 19273754; PMCID: PMC3052997.
- Hörder H, Johansson L, Guo X, Grimby G, Kern S, Östling S, Skoog I. Midlife cardiovascular fitness and dementia: A 44-year longitudinal population study in women. Neurology. 2018 Apr 10;90(15):e1298-e1305. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000005290. Epub 2018 Mar 14. PMID: 29540588; PMCID: PMC5894933.
- Eugene AR, Masiak J. The Neuroprotective Aspects of Sleep. MEDtube Sci. 2015 Mar;3(1):35-40. PMID: 26594659; PMCID: PMC4651462.
- Igbokwe IO, Igwenagu E, Igbokwe NA. Aluminum toxicosis: a review of toxic actions and effects. Interdiscip Toxicol. 2019 Oct;12(2):45-70. doi: 10.2478/intox-2019-0007. Epub 2020 Feb 20. PMID: 32206026; PMCID: PMC7071840.
- Khalsa DS. Stress, Meditation, and Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention: Where The Evidence Stands. J Alzheimers Dis. 2015;48(1):1-12. doi: 10.3233/JAD-142766. PMID: 26445019; PMCID: PMC4923750.
- Taren AA, Gianaros PJ, Greco CM, Lindsay EK, Fairgrieve A, Brown KW, Rosen RK, Ferris JL, Julson E, Marsland AL, Bursley JK, Ramsburg J, Creswell JD. Mindfulness meditation training alters stress-related amygdala resting state functional connectivity: a randomized controlled trial. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2015 Dec;10(12):1758-68. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsv066. Epub 2015 Jun 5. PMID: 26048176; PMCID: PMC4666115.
- Gawronski KA, Kim ES, Langa KM, Kubzansky LD. Dispositional Optimism and Incidence of Cognitive Impairment in Older Adults. Psychosom Med. 2016 Sep;78(7):819-28. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000345. PMID: 27284699; PMCID: PMC5349707.
- Beydoun M, et al. Clinical and bacterial markers of periodontitis and their association with incident all-cause and Alzheimer’s disease dementia in a large national survey. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 2020;75(1):157-172. doi: 10.3233/JAD-200064.
- Guarnera J, Yuen E, Macpherson H. The Impact of Loneliness and Social Isolation on Cognitive Aging: A Narrative Review. J Alzheimers Dis Rep. 2023 Jun 29;7(1):699-714. doi: 10.3233/ADR-230011. PMID: 37483321; PMCID: PMC10357115.