Is dementia really inevitable?

Many of us have the impression that cognitive decline is just an inevitable part of ageing. However, that is simply not the case.

While some genes can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and are associated with an earlier age of disease onset in certain populations, new research in epigenetics shows that lifestyle behaviours can switch most of these genes off.

Moreover, eating well and getting sufficient exercise clearly prevents (or delays) cognitive decline by reducing inflammation and improving blood flow to the brain.

All this is to say that if one of your parents had some kind of cognitive decline, it definitely doesn't have to mean that you will too.
What do we mean by 'eating well'?

  1. Keeping your blood glucose stable by eating complex carbohydrates and avoiding sugars.
  2. ‘Eating the rainbow’ to get as many polyphenols as you can.
  3. Including as many antioxidants as possible in your meals (or teas).
  4. Eating a probiotic-rich diet and getting sufficient fibre for the gut.
  5. Getting the right balance of protein, carbohydrates, vegetables and healthy fats
  6. Eliminating processed food
    What is sufficient exercise?
    Any increase in the amount of exercise you are currently getting will lead to a lower chance (or a later start date) of cognitive decline. You can imagine it like a seesaw, the more one side goes up – the more the other goes down!

    However, if you want specifics...the UK physical activity guidelines for older adults include the following:
  • aim to be physically active every day, even if it's just light activity
  • do activities that improve strength, balance and flexibility on at least 2 days a week
  • do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity if you are already active, or a combination of both
  • reduce time spent sitting or lying down and break up long periods of not moving with some activity
    What kind of exercise should I do?
    Aerobic Exercise: Activities such as our Vital Flow classes (incorporating dance), brisk walking, swimming, cycling or any other activity that elevates your heart rate and increases blood flow to the brain have been linked to improved cognitive function and reduced dementia risk.
    Strength Training: Incorporating resistance-training exercises (such as our Movement Training programs) at least twice a week helps increase muscle mass. 80% of our blood glucose is stored in our muscles, thus helping to balance your blood glucose levels (preventing inflammation).
    Mind-Body Connection: Practices like our Movement Training programs, yoga and tai chi not only offer physical benefits such as flexibility and strength, but also provide mental stimulation and relaxation, supporting cognitive health.
    Getting a good mix of the above is ideal, but if you are not currently active, perhaps just start with one, and make it something you enjoy so you will keep going!

    What else is important?

    Many people believe that doing activities such as crossword puzzles is sufficient to ward off dementia. But unfortunately once your brain learns how to do a crossword puzzle, it doesn't really get challenged anymore. It's much better to engage in an activity that requires increasing difficulty, such as learning a language or playing an instrument. Interestingly, one of the most complicated things our brain has to do is to socialise. So you're much better off getting out for a walk with friends than staying in and doing a crossword!

    Is sleep important?

    Sleep is also foundational for brain health. We now know that the brain is going through a kind of cleaning process as we sleep, and that this may include clearing out the proteins that lead to plaques forming in the brain. So it's very important to prioritise sleep, and this may mean not drinking before bed time, as alcohol negatively impacts the depth of our sleep. Other things that can help with sleep are regularly earthing (having your bare feet in contact with the earth, for example by walking on the beach), getting sufficient sunshine (vitamin D), meditating, doing breathing exercises, and...exercise!

    Time for action

    It can be a devastating and stressful experience to see someone experiencing cognitive decline, so if you struggle with getting motivated to make change for your own sake, why not think of it as an act of love towards your friends and family? Remember - today is the first day of the rest of your life, and the small decisions you make each day add up to big change in the future.