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“The best science on how you can avoid dementia”

29 April 2018 No Comment

A recent article on the Sydney Morning Herald website has summarised “the best available research on preventing cognitive decline and dementia”.

There are a variety of recommendations based on statistical data showing the common traits and pastimes of Australians. The researchers looked at the behaviours of people who went on to develop dementia and tried to find the differences between them and people who did not, to see what might make a difference, and why.

According to the article “more than a third of Australians aged between 70 and 90 will develop mild brain decline – slightly impaired memory, decision making and problem solving. About 30 per cent of that group will go on to develop dementia within 10 years.”

According to the research, developing good habits is “like investing in your superannuation. You need to invest in your brain over the course of your life so you have a nice healthy brain when you’re old”.

The recommendations include:

To ward off dementia, do something you’re bad at.

If you can play guitar, pick up the trumpet. If you can beat the cryptic crossword, tackle Sudoku.

Stay fit

Healthy body, healthy mind. Exercise reduces depression, a major risk factor. It also pumps oxygen into the brain, keeping it healthy.

“In Australia, insufficient exercise is the No.1 modifiable risk factor,” Professor Anstey says. Aerobic exercise and weightlifting are both good but even regular walking helps.

Dementia is also strongly linked to poor heart health, particularly obesity, cholesterol and high-blood pressure. Exercise keeps your heart fighting fit.

People often ask Dr Farrow which aspect of their life they should change to give their brains the best chance.

“You need to think about what’s missing from your life at the moment,” she tells them.

“Is physical activity better than cognitive activity? No. But if you spend a lot of time at work being physically active, you might think about adding intellectual stimulation.”

Find somebody to love

For women, living with someone, being married, and volunteering all make you more resilient to memory decline.

This result, from a single Canadian study done some time ago, might be down to differences in education between men and women, says Professor Anstey. Women with less education who were married to men with more education tended to get a protective effect.

“We’re finding those educational differences are diminishing now with a younger cohort,” she says.

For both sexes, having lots of friends and spending lots of time socialising is very important.

“When you’re interacting with another person, that’s an intellectually stimulating activity. You’re using a lot of your brain to do that,” says Dr Maree Farrow, a researcher at the Wicking Dementia Research Centre in Hobart.

Do something you’re bad at

Keeping your brain active is vital to keeping it fit and healthy. Unfortunately, that’s not as simple as it seems.

Even if something is mentally demanding, it won’t keep your brain fit. The brain needs new challenges, such as picking up a musical instrument for the first time or studying a new language, Professor Anstey says.

“People who can do a cryptic crossword in 10 minutes flat, it’s not challenging their brain any more.”

Studies also show people who read lots of books and regularly go to museums and the theatre have a lower risk of cognitive decline.

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