“Currently more than 55 million people live with dementia worldwide, and there are nearly 10 million new cases every year...Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and may contribute to 60-70% of cases....Dementia is currently the seventh-leading cause of death among all diseases and one of the major causes of disability and dependency among older people globally.” — World Health Organization, Sept. 2, 2021
It happens more often than I care to admit — the inability to come up with a particular word while engaged in conversation. In my mind, I can see the shape of the word lurking in the shadows of my brain. Try as I might to shine a mental flashlight on the word, it will continue to evade me, only to materialize a few hours, or even days, after the conversation has ended.
I have witnessed dementia grip one grandparent’s aging mind and Alzheimer’s disease affect another. Then again, how many other people can say the same thing? Therefore, why do I worry, when my brain stutters, sputters, and struggles with a word, misplacing an item, or wondering why I walked into a room? Answer: because I do not want to be a burden to others.
That said, I dearly loved my Mamaw and Papaw. Even when they were in the throes of dementia and Alzhiemer’s respectively, I still adored them. However, I was not responsible for their daily care and well-being. That responsibility fell squarely upon the shoulders of my parents, their spouses and their siblings. I was the grandchild who could visit, help if asked, and leave as I pleased. I didn’t have to worry about the direct care and multitude of decisions that each diagnosis required — and those decisions grew in direct proportion with the disease’s progression.
Mamaw had two children, and Papaw had three. Even if one child were the legal guardian, they still had another sibling with whom they could confer regarding decisions, seeking help, or any of the other myriad responsibilities that accompany caring for a loved one with a form of dementia.
But I have one child. One. And in the words of Three Dog Night, “One is the loneliest number...” I could cry thinking about putting that sort of responsibility upon her.
My prayer is that dementia will not be my legacy to my daughter, so I have become somewhat obsessed with habits that could prevent it. One quick Google search for, “preventing dementia and enhancing brain health,” yielded 1,500,000 results in 0.56 seconds, many of which are considered “scholarly articles.” Searching “habits that increase risk for dementia,” produced nearly as many results. The point is that I am not alone in my desire to prevent and reduce risk for dementia.
Unfortunately, there is no known cure for dementia, and even the currently prescribed therapies and medicines have proven to have little efficacy. This is often due to the fact that developing any of the various types of dementia is believed to be a complex cocktail of factors including age, medical history, lifestyle factors and genes. Consequently, numerous scholarly sources point to a number of preventative measures because most dementia is not directly inherited.
One of the most-cited statistical links and effective measures to prevent dementia is regular participation in movement and exercise. Some sources break down the amount of time devoted to cardiovascular, strength, balance and flexibility, with 150 minutes per week being gold standard. However, all agree that it is the consistent practice of exercise/movement that matters most.
Another point of agreement is the importance of consuming a healthy diet. Many researchers point to the following diets: MIND, DASH, or Mediterranean as exemplary choices for prevention. However, there are some research quibbles with regard to best diet practices.
One debate is over how much and/or what meat should, or should not, be eaten, although most seem to agree that fatty fish, such as salmon, is a solid preventative choice. There is also some contention regarding the use of dairy, but the general consensus is that if you consume dairy, pick low-fat products. Most research agrees that the consumption of healthy fats — plant oils, seeds, nuts, and avocados — is an excellent choice. However, the amount needed is not always a point of agreement.
The research clearly points to an overall consumption of a high-fiber diet that heavily emphasizes a wide variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, and limits salt, sugar, saturated fats, and processed foods as effective prevention.
Alcohol consumption and sleep appear to have both positive and negative attributes when it comes to dementia prevention. It appears that moderate alcohol consumption — no more than two drinks for men and one drink for women — specifically enjoyed with food — appears to be preventative. However, drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis, seems to increase the likelihood of dementia. Likewise, getting enough sleep, defined as 7-8 hours, on a regular basis is a preventative measure; conversely, getting too much sleep (10 or more hours), or not enough sleep (less than 6 hours), increases dementia risk.
One of the more interesting bits of research centered around the practice of Kirtan Kriya. It is a type of meditation, specifically 12-minutes long, that involves small hand movements, known as mudras. This ancient practice has been cited in several scientific journals as strongly linked to the prevention of dementia. In fact, several Alzheimer’s and dementia research groups offer/sponsor tutorial videos and articles on KK.
There are several other points of agreement among the scientific community for preventing and/or lowering the risk for dementia, including:
- Avoid, or quit, smoking
- Stay mentally active, socially connected, and engaged in meaningful work/tasks
- Care for mental health
- Manage blood pressure and/or diabetes
- Schedule regular wellness checkups and preventative tests/screenings
- Maintain a faith/spiritual/meditation practice(s).
While I did not discover anything ground-breaking in my recent research dive, it was clear to me that a few good habits of health go a long way. Best of all, it’s never too late to increase a healthy habit or two. Just as following the basic tenets of faith are important applications for spiritual well-being, implementation of basic health practices can go a long way in ensuring the vitality of life. In the end, we may not be able to avoid dementia or other age-related illnesses, but we can make impactful choices in order to maintain a healthy, active, and balanced lifestyle for as long as possible.