5 Steps To Prevent Dementia
I don’t get scared very easily, but this statistic is downright terrifying: By 2050, 131.5 million people worldwide will have dementia (that’s almost triple the number now). A new case of dementia is diagnosed every three seconds. Annual costs for treating dementia are already $1 trillion and rising. And if you are over the age of 65, your risk of developing dementia doubles every year.
This is not to be confused with Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia is a general term for a severe decline in cognitive ability. Alzheimer’s is a specific disease in which dementia is the prominent symptom. As many as 40% of dementia cases aren’t caused by Alzheimer’s, and many have signature symptoms and features:
Vascular dementia (dementia as a result of a stroke) comes on nearly as quick as a stroke. Cognitive deficits follow a step-like pattern instead of a gradual decline.
Lewy body dementia is caused by accumulation of proteins that develop in the areas of the brain that control your thinking and movement. These proteins are often found in Alzheimer’s patients, and symptoms are similar to those of Parkinson’s disease. These overlaps make it difficult to accurately diagnose Lewy body dementia.
Frontotemporal dementia is a group of related conditions caused by gradual degeneration of your temporal and frontal lobes of your brain. These parts of your pain are crucial for emotional and behavioral control, decision making, and language. Loss of these skills are signature symptoms of frontotemporal dementia
Rapidly progressive dementia develops lightning fast – sometimes within weeks and months – and has a host of possible causes: developing an autoimmune disease, vitamin deficiencies, infections, reduced blood flow to brain, exposure to toxic substances (including prescribed medications) and more.
And that’s just a short list. It’s likely that someone you love is at risk for developing dementia, perhaps even you. But I have some good news: We know what causes many forms of dementia and many of them are preventable.
Recognizing the Signs of Dementia
I consider dementia the Trojan Horse of modern times. The causes of dementia are right in front of us and we allow them into our bodies. But there’s one difference between the sack of Troy and the onset of dementia: It takes decades for most forms of dementia to set in. In that time, the symptoms of dementia – memory loss, poor judgment, difficulty keeping track of things, mood fluctuations, withdrawal, and more – can surface. But you may not notice them or you write them off as something else: fatigue, dehydration, aging.
However, you have a big advantage over dementia. Time is on your side to prevent it, but the time to start is now. You have another advantage that people 5 years ago didn’t have. And you can thank Dr. Dale Bredesen for that.
His groundbreaking 2014 research took a person-specific approach to recognizing and treating dementia. For each patient, he took multiple blood tests and cognitive evaluations and then implemented (and tweaked) treatments based on results.
He focused on hormone levels, sleep, exercise, brain stimulation levels, vitamin levels, gastrointestinal health, antioxidant levels, and much more. I strongly urge you to read more about his work. It’s truly fascinating.
Prevention of all forms of dementia is generally the same. I divide preventative practices into four main categories: Nutrition, Lifestyle, Supplements, and Drug Interaction.
Preventing Dementia One Plate at a Time
Let’s talk about what you should eat. Your body is different from everyone else’s, but you probably don’t know exactly how. A nutritional panel gives you critical information about what your specific nutrient needs, much more targeted than the general advice I can give in a newsletter.
A comprehensive nutritional panel will reveal nutritional deficiencies – proteins, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. It also reveals your total blood count and metabolic profile. Armed with that information, you can create an optimized dementia diet. Perhaps you need more vitamin D…perhaps you need more B12 (a common source of dementia symptoms). Only a nutritional panel can tell you.
On top of that, I suggest you follow some basic dietary do’s and don’t’s of dementia prevention:
- 100% whole grains
- Complex carbohydrates
- Aim for 5 – 10 servings of vegetables a day. The greener the better.
- Healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocado, and olive oil
- Lean proteins such as legumes, chicken, and fish
- Low glycemic fruit like berries
- Processed foods
- More than two servings of meat a day. Aim for one.
- Refined carbohydrates like white or non-whole-grain bread, crackers, pasta and pastries
- Added sugars and high-fructose corn syrup
A healthy diet keeps your blood pressure and cholesterol in check – which is critical to prevent a stroke and vascular dementia.
The Top 5 Lifestyle Habits of Dementia Prevention
I cannot understate the value of a healthy lifestyle. Not just for preventing dementia, but all forms of disease. A “healthy lifestyle” can mean a lot of different things, so to make things simple, I pared it down to five dementia fighters: better sleep, regular exercise, reduce stress, brain stimulation, and weekly fasting.
Better Sleep and Regular Exercise: A 2017 study found that people who get less rapid eye movement (REM) sleep have a greater risk of developing dementia. Separately, a 2018 study found that being physically fit decreases your risk of developing dementia. And it doesn’t take another scientific study to tell you that regular exercise helps you sleep better. In fact, just a little exercise today will help you sleep better tonight. You don’t need to run a marathon or bench press your own body weight. But going for a brisk walk, every evening after dinner, could work wonders.
Reduce Stress: Chronic stress is common for dementia patients prior to their diagnosis. Stress doesn’t outright cause dementia but it plays an important role. When you experience stress, your body releases the hormone cortisol. Many studies link elevated cortisol levels with learning and memory problems, lower immunity, thinner bone density, weight gain, higher blood pressure and cholesterol, and greater risk of heart disease. Reducing your daily stress is critical for preventing dementia. And there are dozens of ways to do it. My favorite stress busters are exercise, enjoying my favorite hobbies, reading, and mindful meditation. But you might try yoga, tai chi, massage, talking with friends or family members—even therapy is an excellent stress reducer.
Brain Stimulation: You may not think of playing cards, board games, crossword puzzles, and suduko as “healthy” activities. But all that thinking and strategizing keeps your brain operating in high-gear – forming new neural connections and preserving older ones. Lifelong learning, particularly learning in areas where you don’t already have experience, is the equivalent of exercise for your brain.
Regular Fasting: Finally, studies suggest that weekly fasting can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease by slowing down your body’s aging process. This seems promising for other forms of dementia, as well. By fasting, I’m not talking going days without food – more like 16 to 24 hours of reduced calorie intake or full fasting. When you think about it, 16 hours from evening to morning isn’t that long if you include 8 hours of sleep within that time frame. Fasting can also prevent diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
Supplements that Boost Your Brain Power
Stacks of research show that curcumin, omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA), and vitamin B12 are bona fide dementia fighters.
Curcumin: Protein accumulation, oxidative damage, and inflammation are the hallmarks of many neurodegenerative diseases. Curcumin can prevent aggregation of proteins, flush potent toxins and free radicals, and stop and prevent inflammation. It’s the ideal dementia fighter. I recommend 1,500 mg over the course of the day.
Omega-3 EFAs: Numerous studies show that omega-3 essential fatty acids can prevent and reduce the progression of dementia associated with Alzheimer’s disease, but it fights off other forms of dementia too. One of its acids in particular, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), protects you from other dementia risk factors like head trauma, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. I recommend up to 3,000 mg of the omega-3 EFAs per day. Be a label reader! Make sure the combined EPA and DHA content specifically is at least 1,000 mg or more. Research also suggests that DHA is more effective when taken in conjunction with antioxidants.
Vitamin B12: Numerous studies have linked diets deficient in vitamin B12 with increased risk of depression and cognitive impairment – especially among people over the age of 50. In fact, many cases of dementia are actually long-undiagnosed B12 deficiencies. Adding to this, your body does not absorb B12 as well as you get older. I know I talk a LOT about eating plenty of vegetables per day, but many of them lack B12. Focus on greens if you are trying to get B12 from plant sources – spinach, broccoli, green peas, asparagus, and turnip greens. But animal proteins like meat, milk and cheese are the most plentiful source of vitamin B12. But I recommend taking 6 mcg of a B12 supplement daily so you don’t have to overthink what’s on your plate every day.
Drugs Linked to Dementia
Finally, a growing body of research links anticholinergic drugs to increased risk for dementia. These drugs are commonly prescribed for urinary incontinence, Parkinson’s Disease, depression, allergies, sleeping problems, and asthma. And they work by decreasing overactive gut activity, reducing production of digestive juices, and altering the production of neurotransmitters.
Apparently, though, they work too well. An April 2018 study of 40,000 people found “a robust association between some classes of anticholinergic drugs and future dementia.” The anticholinergic drugs in particular were anti-Parkinson’s Disease medication, quetiapine (Seroquel), and medications to curb overactive bladder.
If you are prescribed anticholinergic medications, I suggest that you talk with your doctor about finding alternatives that do not carry as much risk.
A Fighting Chance
Ten years ago, I couldn’t write the following sentence with confidence: There’s a wealth of knowledge readily available to you that can treat and prevent dementia. And it’s growing by the day. That gives me hope in the face of those grim dementia statistics – that millions of people at risk for dementia now have a fighting chance to delay it, blunt it, or prevent it outright.
- “World Alzheimer’s Report 2015: The Global Impact of Dementia.” Alzheimer’s Disease International. Published 2015.
- Russell, Peter. “Common Meds Linked to Alzheimer’s.” WebMD. Published April 20, 2016.
- Pase, Matthew et al. “Sleep architecture and the risk of incident dementia in the community.” Neurology. Published August 2017.
- Brody, Jane. “Vitamin B12 as Protection for the Again Brain.” New York Times. Published Sept. 6, 2016.