Preventing Dementia

Living Well in Myanmar

Exercise your body and mind

One of the most frustrating aspects of getting older, both for my patients and their caregivers, is the slowdown in cognitive capacity.  In its most advanced form this decline in mental function is diagnosed as dementia, most commonly caused by Alzheimer’s disease.  Alzheimer’s dementia is a global problem, known to affect more than 25 million people but likely even more prevalent than that given its underdiagnosis in poor countries.  A person suffering from Alzheimer’s initially has trouble with memory and then slowly progresses towards difficulty with problem-solving, self-care, and processing their surroundings.  Patients are typically confused and therefore become angry, and the connection to life-long loved ones can become strained.  There is no cure for Alzheimer’s and there really are no effective treatments either.

But what if we had a medicine that could reduce the chance of developing Alzheimer’s?  And what if that treatment was also good at protecting your heart and preventing cancer?  It turns out we might have such a medicine, and it’s called a healthy lifestyle.  Medical research has been compiling evidence that the things we know are good for the rest of your body, namely exercise and diet, are also protective for your brain. 

Researchers published a study in Lancet Neurology that followed the lifestyle of people in Finland from when they were 50 to when they were 70 years old.  Those who were active, meaning that more than twice per week they exercised for 20-30 minutes to the point of breathlessness and sweating, reduced their risk of Alzheimer’s by 60pc.  The age of the participants in the study indicates that it’s never too late to get started with physical activity. 

A healthy diet also appears to be protective against Alzheimer’s.  I’ve written previously about the Mediterranean diet and the opportunity we have to adhere to something similar in Myanmar (Manny, should put web site link here).  Well it turns out that following a Mediterranean diet – beans, nuts, fish, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, and wine – reduces your Alzheimer’s risk as well.

What about giving your brain a workout?  It’s now been 10 years since the New England Journal of Medicine released a study suggesting a link between leisure activities and reduced occurrence of dementia.  Subsequent research continues to indicate that maintaining an active mind is protective, supporting the “use it or lose it” theory.  The activities evaluated are quite varied – reading, gardening, sewing, continuing education, music, crossword puzzles, etc. – suggesting that there should be an agreeable cognitive activity for most personality types.

I should emphasize that the research on leveraging lifestyle prevent dementia is still evolving.  Studies that provide a definitive link are difficult to complete, both because lifestyle is hard to evaluate and because there is limited financial benefit to the biomedical industry in researching healthy behavior.  Nevertheless the trend is certainly toward exercise, diet, and cognitive activity preserving brain function in old age, and we are very certain that these can protect you against other diseases.

So try to get more exercise into your weekly routine.  Find ways to eat more vegetables and beans.  Consider improving your English or Burmese, or starting a hobby that requires creativity.  Your brain and body will benefit now and repay you later in life.  © Christoph Gelsdorf 2013