There is no cure for dementia, but there are controllable risk factors that reduce the risk of developing it. Here are 10 suggestions that may help you achieve a lifetime of brain health.
1. Stay engaged with other people
Join a club. Go to church. Do volunteer work. There is significant evidence that social engagement is associated with lower incidence and slower progression of dementia.
2. Get vigorous exercise regularly
Starting a challenging exercise program (after a doctor's OK) in mid-life is associated with lower rates of dementia in old age. But mild exercise and infrequent exercise don't help preserve cognitive function in a significant way.
3. Don't live too close (within half a mile or about 1000 m) to a major roadway
Studies in Taiwan have found up to 750 percent higher rates of Alzheimer's disease in people who are exposed to the highest levels of particulate matter. One of the major sources of particulate matter is auto and truck exhaust. Soot from charcoal fires and kerosene are also major producers of particulate pollution. Road dust, demolition of buildings, and forest fires also release this form of pollution.
Another reason to avoid living near roadways is nitric oxide pollution. Also released by high-temperature internal combustion, exposure to this pollutant is also strongly correlated with dementia.
4. Get your vitamin D
Several studies confirm that lower vitamin D levels are associated with up to a 60 percent higher risk of developing dementia. Get your vitamin D tested. Any level below 50 ng/mL carries an increased risk of dementia. You may be told your vitamin D level is OK for most health concerns and still not have enough vitamin D for long-term brain health. If you are overweight, simply getting more sun may not be helpful, because the fat underneath your skin will sequester the vitamin as the skin makes it. You will need to take a supplement.
5. Don't take iron supplements unless a blood test shows that you have an iron deficiency
Higher levels of exposure to iron cause damage to the central nervous system that increases the risk of dementia. It is important for men and women who have passed menopause never to take iron supplements unless testing confirms iron-deficiency anemia.
6. Wear gloves and a respirator when you use solvents and degreasers
There is a strong relationship between exposure to solvents and degreasers and developing dementia later in life. There are also weaker relationships between dementia and lifetime exposure to pesticides, fertilizers, ink, stains, paint, varnishes, gasoline, diesel, fuel oil, glues, adhesives, rubber, and plastics. If you can't avoid exposure to these manufactured items, pay attention to diet, exercise, and vitamin D.
7. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet
You don't need to fight inflammation with every single bite of every meal, but two diets have been tested and found to generate fewer compounds that cause inflammation that is linked to greater risk of dementia:
- The DASH diet, which emphasizes greater intake of fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy intake, as well as legumes and nuts, along with lower intake of animal protein, sweets, and sodium, and
- The Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, olive oil, honey, and wine with meals.
8. Avoid eating 24/7 and try intermittent fasting
There is some initial evidence from laboratory experiments that intermittent fasting reduces memory loss with aging. You don't have to fast for days and days. Simply skipping two meals in a row (for example, dinner and breakfast the next day) without snacking gives your brain a chance to rest from processing free radicals of oxygen released from glucose derived from both the carbs you eat and excess protein. For people who carry variations of the APOE gene associated with greater risk of Alzheimer's, intermittent fasting significantly reduces the probability they will develop the disease.
9. Keep diabetes under control
People who keep their blood sugar levels normal don't suffer the effects of diabetes. A meta-analysis of clinical studies found that diabetes increases the risk that mild cognitive impairment (Stages 3 and 4 of dementia) will progress to more severe forms of dementia. But controlling blood sugars reduces that risk.
10. But don't be a fanatic about weight loss
Obesity is associated with lower rates of dementia. If you can keep your weight low enough to make blood sugar control, blood pressure control, and cholesterol management possible, there is no advantage in trying to be skinny.