Question: What can you do to prevent dementia-related illness?
Dementia isn’t a single disease, but rather a range of conditions that cause a loss of mental functioning that gets worse over time.
There are many different forms, but the most common dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. There are big overlaps in symptoms between each type.
Commonly, dementia can result in memory loss and confusion, reduced skills in planning, reasoning, language and communication, as well as personality and behaviour changes.
Almost one in 10 Australians aged over 65 have dementia, but by 85, it’s one in three.
So it’s not surprising there’s great interest in knowing what can be done to ward off this illness.
The good news is there’s “quite a lot of research” showing there are things you can do that can make a difference in reducing your risk of dementia — and it comes down to your lifestyle, says Dr Maree Farrow, a cognitive neuroscientist with the University of Tasmania’s Wicking Dementia Research and Education Centre.
“For any individual, we can’t say how much doing these things will lower your risk, because we don’t know what other factors [like genes] are influencing them as an individual,” Dr Farrow said.
“But evidence suggests about 30 per cent of dementia cases could be prevented if we addressed all the lifestyle risk factors we’re aware of.”
A ‘brain healthy’ lifestyle
There are five key things Dr Farrow suggests you do to keep your brain functioning as well as possible as you age:
1) Stay mentally active – do things that make you think and learn
“We know from lots of research that people who do more stimulating activities throughout their life have better brain function and a lower chance of developing dementia,” Dr Farrow says.
While there has been much emphasis on crosswords and sudoku puzzles to boost your brain, other activities you could do include taking up a second language, pursuing a course of study, reading widely or learning a musical instrument.
No-one’s certain which activities work best.
“There’s no reason you should sit down and do a crossword every day if you hate crosswords,” Dr Farrow says.
“Choose something else you’re going to enjoy. And if you’ve been doing crosswords for 30 years and are really good at them, it’s not going to be as stimulating for your brain as trying something you’ve not done before.
“The research suggests it’s challenging the brain so it’s learning something new or different that’s important.”
Unfortunately there’s no evidence computerised brain training prevents dementia, although it may help healthy older people get some minor improvements in cognitive abilities.
2) Stay socially active – maintain a network of friends and acquaintances
No-one’s quite sure why, but staying socially connected with large networks of friends, seems to be good for your brain.
“We believe it’s probably because social activity is another kind of mental activity. By engaging with other people, you are exercising your brain,” Dr Farrow says.