Diabetes. Heart disease. Stroke. Dementia. Four life-threatening diseases that none of us want. But they also have more in common than just that. They are all related to your lifestyle and prevention is based on a foundation of healthy living.
That’s right. Healthy eating and being physically active and can help lower your chances of getting all four. While we’ve known this for a long time for diabetes, heart disease and stroke, we’re now beginning to understand how lifestyle factors are important for preventing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Dementia is used to describe a general decline in mental function such that it interferes with your daily life. This can be challenges in thinking and remembering things. Dementia itself isn’t one disease, but a group of conditions with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common.
The majority of dementias are progressive, meaning the disease and symptoms continue to get worse over time. Starting from what might be barely noticeable lapses in memory and speed of thinking, to more pronounced symptoms such as difficulty reasoning, communicating and changes in mood. It continues to progress to where regular daily activities are no longer possible without help. Ultimately, dementia can lead to early death and is a top five leading cause of death worldwide.
The chances of getting some form of dementia increases as we get older. For people 65 years and older, approximately 10% have dementia. This goes up to 30% in people over 85 years of age.
While age tends to be the strongest risk factor for dementia, other risk factors include obesity during middle-age, hypertension and diabetes. All of these are also related to heart disease and stroke and have their foundations in poor lifestyle habits. The good news is, healthy living can cut your chances of getting dementia by over half.
Food for Thought
You are what you eat, the saying goes. And similarly, your ability to think is affected by what you eat. The Mediterranean diet, which has been linked to protecting against heart disease, may also be good for your mind. Following the Mediterranean diet is associated with improved cognition (the ability to process and understand) and reduced chances of getting dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
More recently, the MIND diet has been developed to prevent dementia. Based off of the Mediterranean the low sodium DASH diets, the MIND diet focuses on foods which may help to prevent dementia. These include green leafy vegetables and berries. Elderly adults who followed a MIND diet, or similar form of diet, cut their chances of dementia by half.
Now I wouldn’t go as far as to say you need to follow the MIND diet. Even the creators of the diet suggest it as only a guideline. But it, and other diets based on plant-based foods, limited animal products and good fats, which avoid processed foods, demonstrate that what we eat can affect how well we can think.
Exercise for Your Brain
When you feel sluggish, a good bout of exercise or even going for a walk is an excellent pick-me-up. Just one session of exercise refreshes the mind and makes you more productive. Over the long-term, the benefits of regular exercise add up. In only four weeks, regular activity resulted in improvements in memory. After six months, there are noticeable improvements in cognition.
Whether regular exercise can prevent dementia by itself, isn’t quite clear. And although being inactive can increase your chances of getting diabetes and heart disease, it may not matter so much for preventing dementia. More research is underway to figure this out.
However, how physically fit you are may be more important than how much activity you do as people with higher fitness levels have less brain degeneration. And having a high level of fitness was enough to delay dementia by nearly 10 years compared to those who were unfit.
While how much you exercise and your fitness levels are closely linked, the two are not the same. Even though low levels of activity provide numerous health benefits, this may not be enough to prevent dementia. You may need to make sure your exercise is vigorous enough to get your heart pumping
So be mindful that your healthy eating and regular exercise is keeping your mind sharp, while also keeping you healthy and preventing many other diseases as well.
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