Preventing and Slowing Dementia

Did You Know

Walking even as little as 1 1/2 hours per week at a pace of 21 to 30 minutes per mile is associated with improved cognitive function and decreased cognitive decline.

There is no known way to prevent dementia. However, there are actions that you can take to reduce your risk for dementia and, in some cases, slow the progression of the disease. These factors include:

  • exercise
  • diet
  • heart healthy behaviors
  • avoiding head injury
  • mental activities
  • socializing

Some factors may decrease the effect of the damage by developing more connections between the remaining brain cells, rather than preventing damage. With more connections between brain cells, function can be maintained longer despite damage to the brain.

Diet

A diet that includes a lot of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains may reduce the risk of developing dementia. These foods appear to protect brain neurons from chemicals, called free radicals, that damage cells. The protective chemicals in these foods are called anti-oxidants. Other foods that may protect against dementia include curcumin, the main ingredient in the spice tumeric, and omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish.

In one study, women who ate green, leafy vegetables (spinach, for example) and cruciferous vegetables (for example, broccoli and cauliflower) had a slower rate of cognitive decline when compared with women who ate fewer vegetables (Snowdon, 2003). Research has also suggested that a Mediterranean diet, marked by high intake of olive oil and low intake of monounsaturated fat, is associated with a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease (Scarmeas et al, 2009).

Exercise

Exercise leads to a healthier brain, just as it leads to better health for the rest of the body. Exercise and physical activity improve cognitive performance and reduce cognitive decline. The amount of exercise does not have to be extreme. Research has found that moderate activity levels (for example, exercising just 3 times a week) decrease the risk of developing dementia. The effect is increased with a greater variety of activities and there appears to be a benefit even if exercise is started late in life.

Keep Your Heart Healthy

The same factors that protect against heart disease help reduce some of the risk factors for dementia. These include, in addition to exercising and healthy eating, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, controlling blood pressure, relaxing and reducing stress.

Mental Exercise

Stimulation of the mind increases the number and strength of connections between the brain cells, strengthens the brain cells you have, and even increases the number of brain cells slightly. Examples of mental exercises that are particularly effective include solving puzzles, learning something new, reading challenging material, playing board games, playing a musical instrument, and dancing.

Protect Your Head

Head injury is associated with increased risk for dementia. Protect your head with helmets during sports, wear seat belts, and avoid sports and situations that involve repeated injury to the head.

Socialize

Older people who engage in regular social activities show less cognitive decline. One reason for this effect is that social activities promote new connections between brain cells.

View References Scarmeas N, Luschsinger JA, Schupf N et al. Physical Activity, Diet, and Risk of Alzheimer Disease. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2009;302(6):627-637.

Snowdon D. Healthy Aging and Dementia: Findings from the Nun Study. Annals of Internal Medicine. Available at: http://annals.org/issues.aspx. Retrieved March 30, 2009.
Resources
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TheRecord.com
Description: 
This article discusses research that found that regular exercise and a good diet markedly reduces the risk of dementia in the elderly.
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WebMD
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This web page discusses foods that have been shown to help lower the risk of developing dementia.
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HelpGuide
Description: 
The top of this web page discusses lifestyle changes to prevent or slow down Alzheimer's disease and how to reduce risk of Alzheimer's by having a healthy heart.
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BMJ
Description: 
This news article discusses research that found that certain forms of mental activity were associated with lower risk of dementia.
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WebMD
Description: 
This web page discusses the research evidence for and against several medical approaches to lowering the risk of dementia.
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ABC News: Technology & Science
Description: 
This news article discusses the work of a scientist who studies how people who play a musical instrument appear to have less severe dementia.
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Time Magazine
Description: 
This PDF brochure contains information on research on factors which may increase or decrease a person's risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Topics of discussion include genetics, environment, life history, and lifestyle factors, such as diet and exercise.