An estimated 5.4 million Americans are living with dementia. One in 8 older Americans have dementia. In 2010, the Alzheimer’s Association reported that 26,000 Idahoans are reported to have Alzheimer’s disease. This number has increased by 37 percent since 2000. Today someone in America develops Alzheimer’s disease every 68 seconds.
The causes of dementia are not entirely known, but most experts agree that it develops as a result of multiple factors. The most important risk factors are age, family history and genetic factors that cannot be changed. But emerging evidence has shown that there are many other factors that we can influence through lifestyle and wellness choices, as well as management of health conditions such as hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity. These conditions are all factors that contribute to dementia and accelerated cognitive decline as we age.
We now know that there is great promise in terms of behavioral strategies that will make a huge difference in the way our brains age. We know that oxidative damage, which leads to cell dysfunction, contributes to cognitive decline. Eating a high antioxidant diet has been shown to bolster cognitive function. A high antioxidant diet includes colorful fruits and vegetables such as blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, broccoli, spinach, etc. Research has shown that not all antioxidants are the same. You want to combine foods that are high in antioxidants so that they work as a team to reduce oxidative damage in the brain and facilitate the repair mechanism. To a cell, oxidative damage is equivalent to molecular rust, and you want to avoid this.
The best current evidence also suggests that heart-healthy eating patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet, also may help protect the brain. A Mediterranean diet includes minimal red meat and emphasizes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish, nuts, olive oil and other healthy fats.
Regular exercise improves brain function. Research has shown that exercise can enhance brain-derived growth factors, build new neurons and synapses, and improve learning and vascular function. Exercise helps people function better intellectually as well as feel better. Exercise, starting at any age, has a positive effect on your brain function.
A number of studies indicate that maintaining strong social connections and keeping mentally active as we age will reduce cognitive decline. Playing card games, doing puzzles, attending plays, talks or concerts, or learning a new skill, instrument or language will help keep your mind sharp.
We cannot change our age, family history or genetics, but we can change behaviors. Research has shown that regular exercise, a healthy diet rich in antioxidants and keeping mentally active will all go a long way in reducing cognitive decline as we age.
Dr. Lindholm is board-certified in neurology. She earned her medical degree from Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine and sees patients at St. Luke’s Clinic in Hailey.