The practice of this habits can reduce the risk of developing dementia
Although there is no cure for dementia, the latest research suggests there are simple ways to prevent or delay its progression.
Dementia has a variety of risk factors, ranging from a person’s age and gender to their smoking and sleeping habits. While certain factors, like one’s genetics, are unchangeable, the majority can be mitigated through simple daily habits, some experts say.
“Dementia is more common than one might think,” Dr. Roger Wong, a clinical professor of geriatric medicine at the University of British Columbia, said to the Star.
While there’s no guaranteed way to prevent it from developing, we can at least reduce its likelihood, he continued.
“All of us can actually do something to not only prevent dementia in ourselves and our loved ones, but also to support those who are living with the condition and their care partners.”
What is dementia?
According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, dementia is not one disease but an umbrella term for a number of symptoms caused by disorders affecting the brain. Alzheimer’s disease is the most notorious and common form of dementia, but others exist.
In many cases, including Alzheimer’s, dementia follows the degradation and destruction of cells in the brain, Wong said.
“We typically see dementia in older adults. However, it is not a part of normal aging,” Wong said. Most people’s memory will remain strong as they age, he continued, with about 40 per cent experiencing normal, mild memory loss past 65.
In contrast, the WHO estimates just five to eight per cent of those over 60 will live with dementia at some point in their lives.
What causes dementia?
According to Lillian Hung, Canada research chair in senior care and an assistant professor of nursing at UBC, dementia has two types of risk factors: those we can control and those we can’t.
Of the factors out of our control, age may be the greatest — the vast majority of cases happen in people over 65, she said. Although rarer, early onset dementia has been recorded in people aged 40 to 50 or younger.
According to Wong, it’s also long been known that women are at a greater risk of dementia than men, although exactly why is still unclear.
All that said, Hung said she believes the majority of dementia’s risk factors fall under our control.
For example, while it’s possible the disease can be caused entirely by one’s genetics, Hung estimates this accounts for just five per cent of total cases.
“A majority of the risk factors are modifiable, lifestyle risk factors, like staying physically active,” Hung said. Here are some major examples and what we can do about them.
How can I prevent dementia?
Recent research identified poor heart and cardiovascular health as a major indicator of a greater risk of dementia, according to Hung. At least 150 minutes of regular exercise every week, a good diet and abstaining from drinking or smoking helps keep your heart healthy and promotes blood flow to the brain.
Chronic illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, high blood pressure and more can also drastically increase one’s risk of dementia, Hung said. If possible, long-term health conditions should be kept under control, Hung advised — especially ones that impact the circulatory system or increase your risk of stroke.
According to Charlene Chu, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of nursing, not getting enough sleep is also a significant risk factor for dementia.
“Getting adequate, restful sleep every night is really important for our brain health,” she said. “Studies have shown that when somebody goes to sleep, their cerebral spinal fluid washes over the brain and helps keep it healthy.”
So too is maintaining an active social life, a factor which has been disrupted for many seniors after the pandemic.
“That could be having a good phone call or joining a volunteer group, volunteering at a local organization or church,” Chu said. “All of those things are really healthy and combat social isolation and loneliness. And these two things have been very strongly linked to cognitive decline.”
On top of the prior tips, Wong also noted that hearing impairment can predispose one to developing dementia. According to Johns Hopkins, those with severe hearing impairment are five times more likely to develop the disease. Proper hearing aids can mitigate much of this risk, Wong said.
“What is interesting is that people need to do all of the above. These interventions have to happen together as a package deal,” Wong said. “You cannot just pick and choose and do one thing. You have to do it all.”
Notably, all these tips also apply to people already diagnosed with dementia, and can help to slow the disease’s progression, experts say. Despite the stigma, it’s entirely possible for people with dementia to live fulfilling, high-functioning lives.
“People underestimate somebody’s ability when they say they have dementia,” said Chu. “… I know people in my research and people in my circle who have dementia that are incredibly high functioning and have found ways to cope and compensate with their memory loss on a day-to-day basis.”
Dementia’s most common and infamous symptom is memory loss, but the illness can manifest in different ways for different people, said Hung.
“Some of the most common symptoms that we’re seeing across different types of dementia would be cognitive decline in terms of function,” she said. This could result in memory loss, changes in behaviour and mood, difficulty processing new information, confusion and more.
In the early stages, short-term memory is often the first to be affected, followed by distant memories later, according to Wong. Other common symptoms include difficulties with: speech and language; recognizing people, faces or objects; doing things with one’s hands, like learning to operate newer technology; or self care like getting dressed, grooming and cleaning, Wong said.
When to see a doctor about dementia
Even in its early stages, dementia’s symptoms can be enough to disrupt one’s life. The Alzheimer Society of Canada recommends you consult your doctor if you’re suddenly: experiencing memory loss that disrupts your daily life; having difficulty with tasks you’re familiar with; struggling to learn or retain new information; experiencing confusion with time, place and the passage of time; and more.
If your loved one is suffering from dementia, experts advise you to connect with an Alzheimer’s society in your jurisdiction as early as possible. The Canadian society’s First Link program is free and helps connect people with support and resources in multiple different languages.
How many people have dementia in Canada?
At the moment, more than 600,000 people across Canada are living with some form of dementia. That number is expected to breach the one million mark by 2030 and triple by 2050, according to a landmark 2020 study by the Alzheimer Society of Canada.
The same study continued that if everyone did what they could to prevent dementia and we could push its onset back by one year, we could reduce the number of people living with the illness in 30 years time by half a million.
As our population ages and dementia cases rise, Chu said it’s critical to listen and learn from people living with the illness every day.
“Adults with dementia, family caregivers, they’re often left out of the conversation when we’re trying to think about ways to make life better for them,” she said. “I do hope that, as we move forward, that we can be more inclusive and design things with them (involved).”
This article was first reported by The Star