For many people growing old comes with many health fears and one of the most terrifying is the risk of developing dementia. Now experts are saying that a few simple lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of developing the progressive, cognitive function condition that can affect cognitive function by a third.
It’s a bold claim, but Professor Sir Muir Gray, co-author of Increase Your Brainability and Reduce Your Risk of Dementia, is perfectly placed to make it. Professor Gray, who was knighted in 2005 for services to the National Health Service, is an adviser to Public Health England and chairman of the NHS Health and Social Care Digital service.
He also developed NHS Choices, set up the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine in Oxford and is the director of the Oxford Optimal Ageing Programme.
“Most people believe that ageing causes major health problems, but that doesn’t happen until your 90s,” says Prof Gray. “Of course we need a bit of luck to avoid diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, for which there is no treatment or prevention, but dementia is a set of behaviours and symptoms caused by many factors.”
This is a relatively new way of looking at old age as people have only just started living longer.
The 30 years between the ages of 60 and 90 are relatively new, says Prof Gray, so individuals are still working out how to use these extra decades.
“We have to rethink what happens to us as we get older,” says Prof Gray.
‘”You have to realise the ageing process is not the major cause of problems. Change is possible, whether you’re in your 60s, 70, 80s or 90s – it’s never too early and never too late to reduce your risk of dementia.
“Before you even start changing your behaviour, you need to be positive. You need to think that ageing is not a key issue, instead, it’s looking at how you live and asking, ‘do I want to take charge?’.”
It’s important not to mistake memory slips such as forgetting someone’s name or misplacing your keys as a sign of early dementia. “These are just filing problems when you don’t have enough shelf space,” says Prof Gray.
“Key signs of dementia include not being able to find your way home, getting yourself into serious financial problems or something like leaving the gas on and nearly causing a fire.
“These things tend to cause major problems and prevent you from looking after yourself.”
The good news is there are effective ways to help you protect your brain in different ways.
Prof Gray refers to this triumvirate as the “Tripple Whammy Brainability Programme” which can be broken down into three basic rules.
The first is to keep your brain tissue healthy, which can be done by getting more reduce better active and physically fitter, reducing the impact of stress, sleeping better and being careful not to overmedicate with prescribed drugs.
The second is to keep the blood ly to your brain flowing, which can be achieved in part by rebalancing your quitting smoking, keeping your cholesterol and blood pressure low, keeping your weight down, checking if have an irregular heartbeat and getting it treated.
The third is to increase your ability to act with people and ideas by volunteering, learning new skills and joining clubs or committees. However, it’s important to note that can’t just pick just one element to work on. All these elements overlap and relate.
For example, increasing your physical ss is not only good for your arteries. It also has a direct effect on the brain tissue, and staying mobile will help you act with other people – a key factor in reducing dementia.
Here’s how you can live better for longer
Walk every day: Brisk walking every day for 30 minutes is one of the best things you can do to reduce your risk of dementia. But as you age you need to do a little more as ageing reduces your resilience.
“With every year, add one minute more,” recommends Prof Gray. “And do a little more exercise with each diagnosis of any condition you get.”
Adopt a Mediterranean diet: Swap red meat for white, boost your intake of fruit and vegetables – aim for at least seven day – and cut down on your sugar and processed foods. “There’s a new diet out every day but sticking largely to a Mediterranean diet is good shorthand for eating healthily,” says Prof Gray.
Think about using olive oil in place of animal fats, getting proteins from plants rather than animals, such as lentils and chickpeas, and eating fatty fish – high in omega-3s – such as fresh tuna and mackerel.
Sort your sleep: Adequate sleep is a major factor that can improve cognitive abilities, remove toxins from the brain and reduce the risk of dementia, Prof Gray explains in his book, Increase Your Brainability and Reduce Your Dementia.
Too little sleep (less than six hours) or too much (more than nine hours) is associated with reductions in cognitive ability.
He suggests getting regular exercise, avoiding caffeine and high-sugar foods before bed, along with keeping your bedroom cool, dark and quiet.
Reduce stress: Acute stress increases your heart rate, your lungs take in more oxygen and parts of your immune system become temporarily suppressed.
When stress becomes long term it allows inflammation to get out of control, which eventually contributes to conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and dementia.
“However, a little bit of stress helps keep us engaged and involved, so just focus on managing unnecessary and excessive stress,” says Prof Gray.
Think about time management and split your day up with breaks and walks, he suggests.
Make lists of what you need to do and prioritise them in order of importance. Practise meditation and mindfulness to help reduce stressful thoughts and manage your stress better.
Reduce your cholesterol: High cholesterol is associated with fatty deposits in arteries and inflammation, which leads to the restriction of blood circulation and blood clots.
High levels of “bad” cholesterol indicate a higher risk of stroke, heart disease and vascular dementia.
Medication such as statins can help reduce cholesterol levels, but should be taken in addition to lifestyle changes such as a low-fat diet, not smoking, not drinking heavily and exercising more.
Lower your blood pressure: Blood pressure is determined by the power of the heart, which pumps blood out, and the resistance of the blood vessels. Any reduction or interruption of this flow can cause strokes or mini-strokes, which damage brain tissue and cause or contribute to dementia, explains Prof Gray.
It’s possible to lower blood pressure by not being overweight, stopping smoking, reducing your salt intake, cutting back on alcohol and exercising regularly.
“If you’ve tried to stop smoking 10 times and failed, try again,” says Prof Gray emphatically. “It’s really important to keep your blood vessels healthy.”
Boost social interaction: It may seem a small thing but keeping up interactions with those around you is one of the most significant things you can do to reduce your risk of dementia. Try to learn new skills by engaging in purposeful work, as well as maintaining and increasing contact with other people, advises Prof Gray.
Keep stimulating your hearing and vision through interaction. Join a bridge or whist club with other people.
Try something new and vary your cognitive workouts as you would a physical workout.
“Keep challenging your brain and mind,” says Prof Gray.
“Not just by doing Sudoku, Wordle or learning Spanish, although those all have benefits, but by having purpose and engaging with others to take on a challenge. “Maybe it’s raising money for people in Ukraine, anything. “Get involved with something that’s challenging, something that you can’t quite cope with, because you’ve never done it before.”
- Increase Your Brainability and Reduce Your Risk of Dementia by Charles Alessi, Larry W Chambers and Muir Gray is out now (£19.99, Oxford University Press). For more information, visit livelongerbetter.uk