We can delay onset of dementia

Here is a very thoughtful piece by the ever-helpful ANDRÉ PICARD in a recent Globe & Mail column. He notes from a study that in fact, we can delay the onset of dementia by taking some proactive steps for ourselves and our aging loved ones.

 

There are few things that aging baby boomers fear more than dementia, a condition that robs one of memory – and too often dignity – and leaves you dying little by little, piece by piece.
The numbers are frightful: An estimated 564,000 Canadians are currently living with dementia, and that figure is expected to rise to 937,000 within 15 years.


Globally, it is estimated that almost 50 million people are afflicted with dementia and that is forecast to rise to 131 million by 2050.


The data are grim – even without mentioning the impact on caregivers, the health system and the economy. Yet, there are little glimmers of hope – in particular, research showing that dementia is preventable, at least in part.


A study published in medical journal The Lancet shows one in three cases could be prevented or delayed if people took better care of their brains.


Based on a review of scientific literature and mathematical modelling, a panel of 24 global experts identified nine factors that increase the risk of dementia and how much those risks could be lowered if they were addressed:
Mid-life hearing loss: 9 per cent;
Failing to complete secondary (high-school and above) education: 8 per cent;
Smoking: 6 per cent;
Failing to seek early treatment for depression: 4 per cent; Physical inactivity: 3 per cent; Social isolation: 2 per cent; High blood pressure: 2 per cent; Obesity: 1 per cent;
Type 2 diabetes: 1 per cent. All told, the potential risk reduction adds up to 36 per cent – but, of course, health problems are easier to avoid in theory than in practice.


Still, some important lessons can be drawn from this list of modifiable risk factors. While things such as smoking and inactivity are commonly seen as lifestyle choices, they are largely symptoms of poor socioeconomic conditions.


That’s a reminder that, as Dr. Martin Prince of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London writes in The Lancet: “Dementia selectively affects the old and frail, women and the socioeconomically and educationally disadvantaged.”
The research also drives home another key point: The brain changes at the root of dementia occur years before the onset of symptoms.


Dr. Antoine Hakim, emeritus professor of neurology at the University of Ottawa, stresses this point in his new book, Save Your Mind: Seven Rules To Avoid Dementia. While the script for dementia is written early, perhaps as early as our teenage years, he writes, the risk of dementia is modifiable – up to and including when symptoms of cognitive decline begin – because of the plasticity of the brain.


Dementia is caused by the death of brain cells. But Dr. Hakim notes that most cases are not Alzheimer’s – characterized by tangles and plaques in the brain – but caused by vascular problems such as high blood pressure and stroke. In other words, what’s good for the heart is good for the brain (and vice versa).


Of his seven golden rules for brain health and reducing dementia risk, Dr. Hakim’s No. 1 recommendation is to “save for a rainy day,” to grow the brain’s capacity and resiliency by exercising it like a muscle.


We can’t prevent dementia from killing people, but we can delay its onset. A one-year delay would translate into nine million fewer cases by 2050; a five-year delay would halve the prevalence of dementia globally in that same time period.


Want to stave off dementia? Read. Write. Play music. Be physically active. Be socially engaged. Eat healthy food. Maintain a healthy weight. Sleep well. Don’t sit mindlessly in front of the TV. Those simple counsels are the best tools we have in a world in which there are no drugs or treatments that prevent dementia.


There are 100 billion neurons, trillions of contact points known as synapses and 600 kilometres of blood vessels in the brain, and “everything we do – and don’t do – affects the health of these cells and their connections,” Dr. Hakim writes.


Dementia is not a natural consequence of aging. Risk depends, in part, on genetics, and on the lifestyle “choices” we make. (And we have to be careful with that word because major factors such as poverty and education are rarely a choice.)


As The Lancet notes, “dementia is the greatest global challenge for health and social care in the 21st century.” But it is not a runaway train. We have the ability prevent – or more realistically, delay – the disease. And keeping dementia at bay, even temporarily, can change a lot of lives.


We can save a lot of minds by using our heads.

Three lifestyle changes to help ward off dementia

Here is a recent excellent article that appeared on Global News online, written by carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

If you’re worried about keeping your brain healthy and staving off dementia, new research is pointing to three lifestyle changes you can make.

Keep your brain sharp with cognitive training, manage your blood pressure levels and always make time for exercise, American scientists say. While studies are still confirming their effectiveness, the study suggests they offer a “modest” effect in keeping dementia away.


“There is good cause for hope that in the next several years much more will be known about how to prevent cognitive decline and dementia, as more clinical trial results become available and more evidence emerges,” Dr. Alan Leshner, CEO emeritus at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in a statement.

Leshner is also chair of the committee that pulled together the report.

“Even though clinical trials have not conclusively supported the three interventions discussed in our report, the evidence is strong enough to suggest the public should at least have access to these results to help inform their decisions about how they can invest their time and resources to maintain brain health with aging,” he said.

In 2010, another review committee decided there was “insufficient evidence” to make recommendations about how to keep your brain healthy and away from disease. Since then, research has come a long way, though.


“The evidence is getting stronger that there are things we can do to potentially lower our risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. Previously, before this evidence came to light, people … said it’s luck of the draw if they’ll get this disease and there was a real sense of helplessness and lack and control,” Mary Schulz, director of education at the Alzheimer Society of Canada, said.

“There are no guarantees that if you follow these [lifestyle habits] to a letter that you won’t develop a form of dementia but we’re learning that they have some protective measures,” she told Global News.

Now, the scientists are pointing to three measures people can take:

Cognitive training

This includes problem solving, memory and speed of processing. It’s supposed to delay or slow age-related cognitive decline. Right now, research suggests that cognitive training can improve performance on a task, at least in the short term.

Learn a new language, take up chess or even take piano lessons. Stimulating your brain helps to reinvigorate it, Schulz said.

“It’s something new and it wakes up your brain, giving it a jolt and startling it. You’re also teaching it to adapt, and be flexible as you have messages fired around in your brain in a way it doesn’t normally,” she explained.

Managing blood pressure

Avoiding high blood pressure is key, especially in your middle years, between 35 to 65 years old, the scientists say.

It prevents stroke and heart disease, and in turn, prevents Alzheimer’s-type dementia.

Keep in mind, last year, Heart & Stroke doctors warned that there’s an “increasingly powerful” relationship between stroke and dementia.

“Stroke and dementia need to be studied together because in some ways they are one and the same,” Dr. Andrew Demchuk, director of the Calgary Stroke program and spokesman for the foundation, said.

“Stroke causes brain cells to die and this can precipitate dementia or worsen pre-existing dementia. There are different causes of dementia, and research now shows that stroke is a major contributor,” Demchuk said.

Stroke happens when blood stops flowing to parts of the brain, causing cells to die. Having a stroke more than doubles your risk of developing dementia later on in life.

Out of every 100 stroke patients without a past history of dementia, 16 are likely to develop dementia after their first or subsequent stroke.

Exercise

Physical activity comes with handfuls of benefits, including stroke prevention – they all benefit brain health.

The review pointed to a number of randomized controlled trials that found exercise being effective in keeping away cognitive decline.

You don’t need to run marathons to keep dementia at bay, but doing some form of physical activity goes a long way in keeping your brain young.

Exercise gets your heart rate up, which increases blood flow to the brain, nourishing cells with nutrients and oxygen. It also encourages the development of new cells, all factors in reducing your risk of stroke, Schulz said.

Gym memberships aren’t necessary — walk to the grocery store instead of driving, take the stairs instead of the escalator and get off of the bus two stops ahead on your way home.

Your brain is just like your heart. They’re both muscles that need to be given a workout to stay healthy.