Strategies for preventing dementia, according to a brain function expert

When Dr Helena Popovic’s dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she took up the fight for prevention

Thirteen years ago, after my mother passed away with lung cancer, I found some Rivastigmine (a drug to reduce symptoms of Alzheimer’s) in my parents’ fridge.

I didn’t know anyone with Alzheimer’s, so I asked my father what it was doing there. He replied that Mum had told him he needed medication to improve his memory. He didn’t think they did much good, but his philosophy was “Happy wife, peaceful life” so he took it.

That was how I learned that Dad had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I had mistaken his memory lapses, confusion and withdrawal for grief. We now know we can halve our risk of dementia and, in many cases, stop MCI – mild cognitive impairment – in its tracks. We can slow and reverse decline after a diagnosis.

Best of all, the factors that improve brain health are compatible with a more meaningful, joyful and socially connected life.

Learning a musical instrument is very beneficial – and fun!

Reducing the risk

There isn’t only one factor responsible for optimal brain health. Regular exercise is a critical piece of the puzzle. So are social stimulation, good nutrition and adequate levels of vitamin B12.

Other puzzle pieces include learning something new, such as a foreign language or playing a musical instrument.

One missing puzzle piece doesn’t immediately lead to a drop in brain performance. It’s like missing the last piece in a jigsaw. But if enough pieces – or if certain crucial pieces – are missing, the resulting damage to our brain starts to interfere with our ability to function.

Foods to eat & those to avoid

When people quit sugar, they’re amazed at how much sharper and more energised they feel. Brain fog lifts and creativity improves. Soft drinks are the worst offenders because they deliver the most sugar in the shortest time. Fruit juices, even though they contain vitamins, are also full of sugar.

Eat real, whole food and try to cook from scratch as much as possible. Good brain foods include green, purple and red vegetables, berries, olive oil, eggs, raw unsalted nuts, oily fish and fermented foods, including natural yoghurt. Avoid processed meats, such as bacon, ham, salami and hot dogs.

As for alcohol, anything over three standard drinks per week (not per day) starts to cause brain shrinkage.

Fresh veges are good for the brain.

Why is exercise important?

Staying physically active is essential for maintaining and improving brain function. Aim for at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week, plus 20 to 40 minutes of strength training a week.

Strength training is also essential because weak hand-grip strength is a predictor of cognitive decline. Strength training increases insulin sensitivity, reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes (which doubles the dementia risk), reduces frailty and stimulates neurotransmitter production. Strong muscles equate to a strong mind.

More dementia prevention tips

Look after your teeth – one of the bacteria that causes gum disease can damage the brain’s learning and memory centre.

If you have hearing loss, get hearing aids or whatever you need. Mid-life hearing loss is a risk factor for dementia because the region of our brain that processes sound is no longer stimulated.

If you’re a snorer, ask your GP about a sleep study. Obstructive sleep apnoea increases the risk of dementia too.

Strategies for a sharp brain

  • Having purpose and continuing to set meaningful goals. If we give our brain a reason to stay sharp, it will.

  • Good-quality sleep of seven to nine hours.

  • Strong supportive relationships – having a confidante and feeling part of a community.

  • Regular physical exercise – at least 20 to 30 minutes a day on most days.

  • Lifelong learning and challenging ourselves mentally. When you retire from work, do not retire from life!

Dr Helena Popovic is a GP, brain function expert and author of Can Adventure Prevent Dementia? A Guide To Outwitting Alzheimer’s (Choose Health, $41).

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