If you're one of the rare people who has not known someone afflicted with Alzheimer's or another form of dementia, congratulations. But if you're like most of us, you've watched at least one family member or friend suffer, and wondered helplessly what can be done to prevent this disease in others—including yourself.
Until recently, there hasn't been a good answer. But some research has emerged suggesting that there are measures one can take to reduce the risks of developing dementia in later life. Understand, of course, that while taking certain actions can reduce risk in a population, there's never a guarantee that an individual can avoid dementia. Even so, the steps suggested below are beneficial to overall health, so they're worth taking.
What you eat, and don't, may have a significant effect on your chances of developing dementia. Unsurprisingly, diets containing lots of sugar, trans fats and cholesterol have been linked with diminished cognitive health in the elderly. Conversely, the Mediterranean diet, rich in fish, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, and low in dairy, poultry, and meats is linked with a reduced risk of dementia in one's later years. Also connected with a lower risk of dementia is the DASH diet, which emphasizes fruits and vegetables; fish and poultry; low-fat dairy; whole grains; nuts and legumes. The DASH diet limits sodium, sugary beverages and sweets, and red meats. DASH stands for "Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension."
Exercise is good for more than your heart and waistline; there's mounting evidence that it's good for your brain health, as well. It's unclear exactly how exercise has a beneficial impact, but it is possible that it helps brain cells by increasing the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. Considering the known benefits of exercise for mental and physical health, not to mention appearance, there really is no downside to following this recommendation.
How does preventing cardiovascular disease protect your brain? The causation mechanism is uncertain, but the correlation between heart health and brain health is clear: conditions like diabetes, elevated cholesterol, and hypertension (high blood pressure), which increase cardiovascular risk, are also linked to a higher risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Some studies involving autopsies of Alzheimer's patients revealed that up to eighty percent of those studied also suffered from cardiovascular disease. Therefore, it's best to prevent these conditions if you can, and to manage them with medication and lifestyle changes if you have already been diagnosed.
Numerous studies also point to a link between mental stimulation, strong social connections, and maintaining brain health. Once again, the precise mechanism by which keeping the mind active benefits brain health isn't known. Researchers speculate that social and mental activity serve to strengthen connections between neurons in the brain.
Many of the measures noted above, like exercise, a healthy diet, and controlling blood pressure, have long been known to be helpful for the heart. It's no surprise, then, that smoking, which has a strong association with heart disease, is also associated with Alzheimer's and dementia. In fact, current smokers are much more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease than individuals who have never smoked.
In general, the steps you can take to reduce Alzheimer's and dementia risk are likely to benefit your health overall. To further increase your peace of mind regarding aging, consult with an elder law attorney to learn how to protect your interests in the event of incapacity.
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