If you’ve had to watch firsthand as a loved one has struggled through a losing bout with dementia, then you’ve probably been alarmed by just how life-altering it can be. You’ve also considered your own mental health and how important it is to protect your memory and cognitive functioning. But can dementia be prevented or delayed? And, if so, what are the proper steps to take?
What is Dementia?
It’s imperative that we begin this discussion with a clear understanding of what dementia is, what causes it, and what sort of prognosis it affords the affected individual.
According to the National Institute on Aging, “Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning—thinking, remembering, and reasoning—and behavioral abilities to such an extent that it interferes with a person's daily life and activities. These functions include memory, language skills, visual perception, problem-solving, self-management, and the ability to focus and pay attention.”
Dementia occurs on a spectrum. In the mildest cases, it simply impacts basic memory. But as the disease progresses, many people lose the ability to care for themselves. The brain stops working and once-healthy neurons cease to perform the jobs they once carried out.
The exact cause of dementia can vary on a case-to-case basis. One of the most common causes – at least in elderly individuals – is Alzheimer’s disease. An estimated 5.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s at any given time, while 1 in 3 seniors will die with the disease or some other form of dementia.
4 Tips for Lowering Your Risk
Dementia isn’t an isolated problem – it’s an American health crisis. And while heredity influences your susceptibility to the disease, environment, and lifestyle also play a significant role. Having said that, here are some smart steps you can take to lower your risk:
- Maintain Cardiovascular Health
Your brain relies on a healthy cardiovascular system in order to receive and transmit oxygen and other vital nutrients. If your cardiovascular system is compromised, your brain will suffer the consequences. One long-term consequence is the development of dementia.
In order to improve brain health and lower your risk of dementia, you should practice heart-healthy habits. This means not smoking, maintaining the right blood pressure, eating a healthy and balanced diet, exercising regularly, and maintaining an optimal weight.
- Eliminate Artificial Sweeteners
According to a research study conducted over a 10-year period, there’s a strong link between the consumption of artificially sweetened beverages and the risk of developing dementia.
“Participants who reported drinking at least one artificially sweetened beverage a day had almost two and a half times the risk of developing dementia and almost twice the risk of having a stroke ten years later,” Claire Galloway, Ph.D. writes for InMyArea. “Although both stroke and dementia can result from different diseases and conditions, the researchers also found that drinking artificially sweetened beverages specifically increased the risk for dementia from Alzheimer's disease and ischemic stroke.”
If you want to continue drinking soda or putting sugar in your coffee, make sure you’re only consuming beverages with natural sweeteners – such as stevia or raw sugar.
- Stay Physically Active
Physical exercise is helpful in keeping your mind and body healthy. Health practitioners suggest getting at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five days per week. Something as simple as a walk around your neighborhood can be enough to lower your risk.
- Exercise Your Mind
Mental exercise is just as important as physical exercise. In order to keep your brain functioning at an optimal level, continually stretch your cognitive abilities. Try simple things like crossword puzzles, card games, reading, or signing up for courses at a community college. Volunteering is also helpful. It usually requires you to use your brain, while also forcing you into social interaction (which further inhibits the progression of dementia).
Make Healthy Choices
As you can see, healthy lifestyle choices make the biggest difference. If heredity is a factor in your situation, you’ll always face some risk of dementia. However, you can lower the likelihood – or at least slow the progression – by making simple and healthy decisions with what you put into your body, what you expose yourself to, and how you exercise your capacities.