It’s likely that you know someone who’s been affected by dementia. According to the Alzheimers Society, one in six people over the age of 80 will experience cognitive impairment clinically defined as dementia. While early symptoms of the illness are difficult to detect, dementia can impact language and clarity of thought, interfere with laying down new memories and cause forgetfulness. It is a progressive condition with no known cure.
Despite tens of billions of pounds of funding and more than 200 clinical studies looking for a ‘wonder drug’, we are still at least a decade away from having more pharmaceutical weapons in our armoury. However, despite the fear and worry the condition causes for both ourselves and older family members, there is now hope on the horizon.
Few people know there are ways to delay the early onset of dementia and memory loss more broadly. We used to think our brains stopped developing after a certain age but this is not the case and we now know the brain is dynamic and we can actively transform it over time. We are able to grow new brain cells (neurogenesis) and new neural pathways (neuroplasticity) and through simple lifestyle changes, we can actually improve our brain health – boosting our cognitive ability and strengthening our minds. In fact, a commission by the Lancet found that 40 per cent of dementia was preventable.
As we age, many of us become increasingly aware of looking after our bodies. We might visit the gym to keep in shape and our heart healthy but we rarely do anything like that for our brain. But we should – think of it as personal training for the brain. Here are five areas to focus on to help boost brain health.
Food: We know a diet in high levels of saturated fat and sugar is bad for our bodies, but it is also terrible news for our brain. The ‘dry weight’ of the brain is composed of 60 per cent fat and this fat in the brain should be made from essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 but in the UK we eat 59 per cent less fish than we did 60 years ago. If you want to boost brain health, you should look to the Mediterranean-style diet – rich in fruit, vegetables and the crucial Omega-3s in oily fish. One popular diet in the US, The MIND Diet, has been developed specifically to delay the onset of cognitive decline and is similar to the Mediterranean diet including plenty of berries and green leafy vegetables. Cutting down on meat and steering towards a more plant-based diet is also recommended.
Sleep: Many of us fail to get the magic eight hours of shut eye a night but it is a vitally important part of keeping our brains active and healthy. Not only will a poor sleep pattern impact your cognitive ability in the short-term, there is now evidence that reduced sleep can impact your brain health over time. For example, reduced sleep is associated with reduced ability to clear away the harmful beta-amyloid protein – one of the key signs of the condition. The quality and pattern of sleep is just as important as the length of time you’re asleep, so set a regular routine. Get to bed an hour earlier, turn off blue-light screens (that includes Netflix and your smartphone) and try to avoid drinking caffeine after midday as one eighth of the caffeine will still be in your bloodstream at midnight. Make sure you get up and out in the daylight as early as possible, as this is really important in keeping your body’s circadian rhythm in check.
Train and maintain: Treat your brain like a muscle and train it. Few people spend enough time exposing their brain to novel activities, but research has shown that it can delay the onset of cognitive decline. This can be as simple as having an in-depth conversation, reading a book, or doing a crossword, but it could also take the form of learning a language or playing an instrument. Our busy lives mean that we’re constantly switching focus from one task to the next, which can be harmful for our brain health. It is hugely beneficial to stop and focus on one specific task which tests our brain in a new way. There are also powerful studies into the impact of meditation and mindfulness on brain health with one study from UCLA finding that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged.
Exercise: studies have shown that aerobic exercise can have positive effects on brain function with one study showing that just 20 minutes of movement can facilitate information processing and memory function. Exercise boosts the flow of blood to the brain, delivering vital oxygen and growth hormone stimulation which help provide a positive environment for the growth of brain cells. Other research has shown that exercise increased growth factors in the brain – making it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal connections. Muscle strengthening is also recommended as a a weak hand grip is associated with increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. So next time you’re heading to the gym or out for a run, think of all the good you’re doing your brain, as well as your body.
These lifestyle interventions are all so closely linked that together they’re an extremely powerful force for good. Doing more exercise and training your brain should lead to better quality sleep, as will small improvements to your diet. There is no silver bullet and unfortunately, dementia is a cruel disease that can appear in the healthiest of people due to genetic effects, but as with your body, if you treat your brain with care today, there is a chance it will take care of you into the future.
Dr Jamie Wilson is a dementia specialist and founder of hometouch, set up to improve the quality of home care and safeguard brain health