Well & Good
More than a third of New Zealanders say dementia is one of the things they fear most about getting older. It's a legitimate fear as there's currently no prevention or cure for Alzheimers or other forms of dementia.
But that doesn't mean we sit and hope for the best, or wait for either genetics or age to catch up with us. As the number of people affected by dementia increases, our understanding of the human brain is also gaining speed.
What we're lucky enough to now know, more than any generation before us, is that the brain is a malleable organ. And what we put into it now might just be able to reduce the risk of dementia later.
What we now know
For years it was thought the adult brain was a fairly fixed structure, and once brain cells died they could never be replaced.
Now we know that the brain has an astonishing degree of plasticity, and with enough training and new experiences it can actually form new neural pathways and connections between brain cells. In other words, it can form alternative routes to our usual ones, to get us where we need to go - all in response to new learning and stimulus.
Evidence shows even after damage to the brain, or perhaps a stroke, the brain is able to rewire itself to help us regain function. Though one area might be damaged, another area of the brain can pick up the workload and take over the functions that were lost.
That means by challenging and exercising the brain we can potentially spur it into repair mode.
In some cases, the brain can even grow new cells. This has been demonstrated in parts of the brain like the hippocampus, which is believed to play a role in memory formation.
Such studies are helping scientists develop new treatments for Alzheimers and other conditions involving damage to the brain. But in the meantime we could all be encouraged to work the brain's plasticity in our favour, by challenging it, exercising it and feeding it the right nutrients to help it flourish.
Adopt a brain-healthy lifestyle
Anyone hoping to stave off dementia in the future, or those already experiencing the early stages of dementia, might benefit from adopting these 'brain healthy' habits.
Alzheimers New Zealand and Alzheimers Australia say while there are no guarantees of prevention, the risk of dementia can be reduced by following five simple steps.
1. Look after your heart
We know conditions like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and obesity are bad for the heart - but they can also damage the blood vessels in your brain, leading to changes in how your brain functions and thinks. Whatever you do to protect your heart can also protect your brain. That's why making lifestyle changes, such as stopping smoking or losing weight, might also benefit your brain health.
2. Increase your physical activity
Exercise is not only good for overall health - it also maintains good blood flow to the brain which is linked to better brain health. Aim for at least 30 minutes a day of moderate intensity physical activity, such as walking, dancing, cycling or swimming.
3. Challenge your brain with new activities
Challenging your brain with new activities helps build new brain cells and strengthen the connections between your brain cells. New activities may also protect your brain from accumulating the damaging protein that causes Alzheimers Disease.
Anything new and unfamiliar will challenge your brain. Try a new hobby, learning a new language, playing a new instrument, reading a novel, or taking up some study.
4. Eat healthily
A healthy diet may help your brain function at its best. Try and include foods that contain 'good fats' such as those found in olive oil, nuts and fish, as well as eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and lean meat.
5. Make time for social activities
Mental stimulation may contribute to reducing your risk of dementia. Make an effort to catch up with friends and family, or maybe get involved in your local community.
If you're concerned that you or someone you know is showing signs of dementia, see your doctor for a full assessment. For support and more information, you can contact your local Alzheimers organisation on 0800 004 001.
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