The most feared medical condition in folks over 55? Dementia—specifically Alzheimer’s dementia—according to multiple surveys. Cancer is a distant second.
The majority of dementia cases are Alzheimer’s dementia (AD), yet there is currently no easy way to screen for AD. Neuropsychological testing is still the gold standard (this is testing that takes a few hours with a neuropsychologist). Genetic tests are available but only for the rarer early onset form (a small percentage of dementia cases).
Two thirds of Americans with AD are women. We used to think that was because women lived longer but now we know that if we follow men and women with the same degree of mild cognitive impairment, women progress twice as fast. Ok, that’s depressing.
Here’s a silver lining though. A recent USC study found that rates of dementia have dropped by 2% to 10.8% in women older than 65. Recent years have brought us some fantastic studies on risk factors and things we can do to avoid dementia.
So, what are some proven ways to lower my risk of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia?
- Physical activity. Less physical activity = higher risk of dementia. Plain and simple you need 150 minutes a week of at least moderate exercise. 20-30 minutes of those 150 should be vigorous.
- Aerobic exercise (biking, running, walking) improves sensorimotor areas in the brain.
- Coordination exercise improves the visual spatial areas in the brain.
- Limit the beef. A diet high in red and processed meats was associated with cognitive decline in a recent huge study. Sad, I love bacon.
- Grains for brains. A diet low in whole grains has been found to be associated with higher risk of dementia. What are whole grains? Grains that haven’t had their bran and germ removed by milling. This includes brown rice or popcorn, buckwheat or whole wheat in bread.
- Mediterranean diet. A large beautifully designed long-term study revealed that mediterranean diet + mixed nuts (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts) or mediterranean diet + extra olive oil both lowered your risk of cognitive decline and actually improved memory in some—as compared to a low fat diet. That’s easy, a handful of nuts each day.
- Brain games. There is no evidence of any significant benefit from “cognitive training” games but using your brain in different ways (doing a puzzle, learning conversational Italian, sudoku) has been advocated by some as helping improve memory.
- Higher levels of education. It’s not that education itself is protective, but rather that it’s helpful to have a higher educational reserve. In other words, a higher level of education decreases the impact of the cognitive decline.
- Diabetes. Diabetes increases the risk of dementia and AD. Patients on insulin have the highest risk. It is unclear what the cause of this increased risk in diabetics is.
- Don’t get old. I know, sorry. The risk of dementia doubles every 10 years after the age of 60.