According to a recent study, 1 in 10 people above the age of 60 years in Singapore has dementia, which is a “syndrome in which there is deterioration in memory, thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday activities” (WHO).
If someone were to ask you how you can prevent dementia, you might be tempted to say that an active brain is the answer. Challenging your brain to do something difficult like learn a new language, dance, sport, or musical instrument does delay the symptoms of dementia by several years, but it may not lower your risk of dementia. A 2015 study found that those who had cognitively demanding jobs were less likely to show signs of dementia at the age of 75 years and above, and another recent study found that bilinguals were less likely to show signs of dementia compared to monolinguals, while earlier studies have already shown that learning to master something that you’re not already expert at, such as mahjong or tai chi, improves your cognitive skills if you have mild dementia.
So what causes dementia?
That’s not an easy question to answer. But research in the last decade has identified what makes it more likely for us to develop dementia.
Having diabetes increases our risk. A 12-year-long 2015 study conducted in Taiwan has found that individuals with diabetes have a higher risk of dementia, and that risk increases further with diabetes complications such as blindness and kidney failure.
But it’s not just diabetes. In fact, research shows that the factors which put us at risk for cardiovascular disease leading to heart attacks and strokes — alcohol consumption, smoking, and obesity — are also risk factors for dementia. Research shows that as many as 50% of people have dementia because of known risk factors such as physical inactivity, depression, smoking, mid-life hypertension, mid-life obesity, and diabetes.
So what lowers our risk?
The answer is exercise. One study estimates that physical inactivity is the reason for over 20% of the population to have dementia in US, UK, and Europe, while a 2013 study found that the risk of dementia at age 85 to 94 was 60% lower for men who maintained 4 out of 5 healthy lifestyle habits (regular exercise, not smoking, a low body weight, a healthy diet, and low alcohol intake) than those without these habits (with exercise being the main cause for lowering the risk of dementia).
But what if we’re already doing all those things. We exercise the recommended number of hours a week, if not more, and we don’t smoke…our BMI is within the healthy range and our lifelong goal is pursuing a wonderful diet of fruits and vegetables.
What else can we do to prevent cognitive decline? Here are few things we can do…
1. Spend less time sitting down because a 2015 study found that the more we sat down, the higher our chance of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes (…and dementia).
2. Get a creative hobby because a recent study which followed older adults for 4 years found that those active in arts and craft were less likely to experience cognitive decline.
3. Spice up your food because a recent study found that a once-a-week intake of chilli lowered the rate of cancers, respiratory diseases, and ischemic heart disease. The authors didn’t report its effects on dementia though. Instead, spice in the form of tumeric (curcumin) has been found to be useful for repairing brain cells affected by dementia.
4. Eat leafy green vegetables because a 2015 study found that cognitive decline was slower among those who regularly ate spinach, kale, collards, and mustard greens. And go easy on the meat and cheese (Why? Read this article on the Blue Zones to learn more).
5. Increase your intake of walnuts because a new study suggests that they delay the progression of Alzheimers.
6. Incorporate eggs, bananas, dark chocolate, avocado, blueberries, and omega-3-rich foods into your diet because a collection of studies show that omega-3 fatty acids, choline, magnesium, and cocoa flavanols are among the nutrients which support brain functioning.
There are 6 easy steps to support brain functioning and delay cognitive decline, but preventing dementia requires regular exercise, a diet of vegetables, fruits, and no tobacco, good control of blood sugars, and good mental well-being. No one said it’d be easy…