Dementia is an umbrella term for a group of symptoms caused by disorders that affect the brain, including devastating diseases like the most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and lesser-known forms of dementia like Lewy body dementia. Even stroke can cause dementia.
More than 5 million people in the U.S. alone are living with Alzheimer’s, so there’s a good chance you know someone affected by dementia. It can be very difficult to watch someone you love deal with symptoms of dementia, which often include memory loss and trouble with language, along with personality changes, delusions, agitation and less ability to solve problems or control their emotions. It’s important to note that although dementia risk increases with age, it is not part of the normal aging process. (1)
As the unfortunate death of legendary University of Tennessee women’s college basketball coach Pat Summitt reminds us, dementia can strike even younger people — she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 59 and died at age 64.
It’s certainly clear that there’s a lot of pain and suffering involved with Alzheimer’s, and Alzheimer’s drugs have consistently come up short when it comes to curing the disease. There is light at the end of the tunnel, though. A recent small, breakthrough study published in the journal Aging found using a comprehensive, personalized approach, including diet and exercise, actually reversed symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The results were so robust and sustained that many of the study participants were able to return to work. (2)
With comprehensive treatments on the horizon, we can feel hopeful that integrative, personalized approaches could be the key to fighting this disease. In the meantime, though, it’s also important you take relatively simple steps to lower your risk of dementia now — before the disease has a chance to set in. According to a 2017 report published in the Lancet, approximately 35 percent of dementia cases could actually be delayed or even prevented if attention is given to nine modifiable risk factors: less early education, midlife hypertension, obesity, hearing loss, depression in later life, diabetes, physical inactivity, smoking and social isolation. (3) In addition to addressing these nine risk factors, let’s take a look at some of the other emerging ways to lower your risk based on research.
Lower Your Risk of Dementia
You may already know that avoiding processed foods, favoring a Mediterranean diet and exercising lower your risk of dementia. There are other relatively simple, meaningful steps you could take to lower your risk, too.
1. Beware of High Copper Levels in Your Water
You need traces amounts of the heavy metal copper to survive because it’s vital for bone, hormonal and nerve health. Too much of a good thing, though, could be bad for your brain. A 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that copper can trigger the onset of Alzheimer’s and fuel the disease. In fact, the study found that copper in drinking water at levels one-tenth of the water quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency caused a toxic accumulation of the pro-Alzheimer’s protein amyloid beta. (4)
The researchers can’t yet say what the exact level of “too much” copper is, but if you have copper water pipes, getting your water tested for excess copper is a good place to start. Water filters that are NSF-certified under NSF/ANSI 53 for copper reduction will reduce copper to below the EPA’s maximum contaminant level or lower. (5)
2. If Possible, Avoid Allergy Drugs and Other Pills Linked to Dementia
Drugs linked to dementia include common allergy and sleep medications, including popular medications like Benadryl, Dramamine, Advil PM and Unison, among others. These pills are known to have anticholinergic effects, something researchers are increasingly linking to dementia.
A 2016 study published in JAMA Neurology is a unique one that used brain imaging to detect how anticholinergic drugs impact the brain. By utilizing MRI and PET scan imaging technology, the researchers were able to show how people taking anticholinergic drugs experienced lower brain metabolism and higher brain atrophy. Participants taking the anticholinergic drugs also tested worst on memory tests. (6)
University of Washington scientists also found the chronic use of certain anticholinergic sleep aids and hay fever meds increased a person’s risk of dementia. The study only found the link for people taking these drugs for three or more years. (7)
Find out if your drugs possess anticholinergic properties. Aside from older allergy drugs and some sleep medications, certain antidepressants, COPD and asthma medications, along with drugs for overactive bladder issues, could . If they do, find if safer options are available, or work with your health care provider to possibly work more natural treatments into your healing plan.
For instance, learning to use essential oils for allergies could ease your symptoms. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology suggests peppermint oil acts as a relaxant and exhibits antispasmodic activity, inhibiting contractions that causes you to cough. (8) (Peppermint oil isn’t a good choice for children under 30 months because it can impact the heart, lungs and circulation in dangerous ways.) (9)
3. Sleep in This Brain-Friendly Position
Sleep positions matter. Most people — and wild animals — sleep on their sides. Now, we may better understand the brain-friendly reason this is the case. In 2015, researchers found that sleeping on your side could improve one of the brain’s waste-clearing processes, lowering the risk for neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
The link between certain types of dementia and sleep are well-established, but a recent study took a closer look at how the way you sleep impacts drainage of harmful substances in the brain. The Journal of Neuroscience study found that the brain’s glymphatic pathway, a complex system that clears wastes and other harmful chemicals from the brain, worked most optimally when people slept on their sides, as opposed to belly or back sleepers. Similar to the how the body’s lymphatic system clears waste from organs, the glymphatic pathway is responsible for filtering cerebrospinal fluid through the brain and exchanging it with interstitial fluid to clear waste like amyloid β (amyloid) and tau proteins, chemicals that negatively affect brain processes if they build up. (10, 11)
4. Avoid Brain-Damaging Pesticides
It’s increasingly clear that dementia isn’t solely a genetic issue and that environmental triggers are often present. Such is the case with DDT, the insecticide once thought “safe” but later banned in the 1970s. Research led by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences shows that people with higher levels of DDT in their blood are much more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. People with Alzheimer’s had, on average, 3.8 times higher levels of a DDE, a DDT breakdown product, in their blood compared to people who did not have Alzheimer’s disease. (12)
DDT is considered a legacy polluter because, although banned, it persists in the environment for decades. Luckily, levels of DDT and its breakdown products in humans are slowly dropping, although today you’re mostly likely to be exposed through food sources higher in the food chain. Animal and fatty foods contain the highest levels of DDT and breakdown products because they’re stored in fat and increase in concentration as they move up the food chain. (13) Also avoid eating nonorganic produce imported from countries that still use DDT and abide by fish advisories if you fish for food. (14, 15)
As for chemicals currently in use? We don’t necessarily know the long-term impact they’re having on our brains. Emerging research suggests many approved pesticides are having brain-damaging effects. For instance, a 2015 study found people who ingested food treated with acetamiprid, a neonicotinoid insecticide, complained of symptoms like memory loss, finger tremors and headache, among other things. Certain neonicotinoid insecticides are also blamed for the unprecedented die-off of bees and bats. (16) To avoid the 12 most pesticide-laced foods, always buy organic versions of the produce items on the dirty dozen list.
5. Live a Life of Purpose
Researchers from Rush University Medical Center uncovered an interesting connection between a person’s sense of purpose and dementia risk. Study participants who reported the highest scores on the life purpose test were 2.4 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s compared to people with the lowest scores. Living a life full of purpose, as defined by this study, involved things like having a sense of direction and purpose in life and feeling good when thinking about past accomplishments and hope for things to accomplish in the future. (17)
This means finding something that makes you happy (volunteering about something you’re passionate about or learning how to play an instrument are great examples) and sticking with it can do wonders for your brain. As an interesting side note, correcting forward head posture is scientifically proven to make you happier, so consider fixing faulty posture while you’re at it, too.
6. Beware of Low Vitamin D Levels
In 2015, U.K. researchers published a study in Neurology suggesting that people severely vitamin D deficient (less than 10 ng/mL) face a 122 percent increased risk of dementia. Those who were just “deficient” (less than 20 ng/mL) experienced a 51 percent higher risk of all-cause dementia. (Note, some vitamin D test results come in nmol/L form, so a conversion to ng/mL may be necessary.) (18)
To figure out your baseline vitamin D levels, ask your doctor for a 5-hydroxyvitamin D or 25(OH)D blood test. Be sure to get the actual test result number, too. Your test may come back as “normal” if it’s above 30 ng/mL, but the truth is many functional medicine doctors and researchers believe minimum levels of 60 or even 80 ng/mL are needed to prevent many health problems. Once you know your levels, you can increase vitamin D, if needed, by getting sensible sun exposure and working vitamin D-rich foods into your diet. If you need to supplement, make sure it’s with the vitamin D3 form, which is more readily available to your body than D2.
7. Be a Stickler for Good Oral Health
Taking care of your teeth and gums also helps protect your brain. A large study investigating the dental habits of about 5,500 older people over an 18-year period found a strong link between people with poor oral hygiene and the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Those who reported brushing their teeth less than once a day were up to 65 percent more likely to develop dementia compared to people who brushed twice a day. (19) Gum disease bacteria may find its way to the brain, setting off an inflammatory process that causes brain damage, the study author noted. (20)
8. Walk 3 Times a Week
A 2017 study analyzed vascular cognitive impairment, the second most common form of dementia worldwide, and how exercise affects patients. Generally, in brain-scan studies, people with vascular cognitive impairment show increased neural activity in the parts of their brains that are involved with memory, decision-making and attention. This means their brains had to work harder than healthier brains.
To see if exercising could help the brain work less, researchers recruited 38 older people who had been diagnosed with a mild, early form of vascular cognitive impairment. None exercised at the time. Researchers measure participants’ brain activity and then began the exercise regimen: three supervised one-hour sessions a week. Supervisors instructed participants to move briskly enough to raise their heart rates to about 65 percent of their maximum capacity.
By the end of the study, walkers generally had lower blood pressures than the control group. Plus, their brains were working differently. The walkers’ brains showed less activity in portions of the brain required for attention and rapid decision-making. (21)
A 2018 study further confirmed this by examining if cardiovascular fitness in middle-aged women decreased dementia risk. The study examined Swedish women aged 38 to 60 and revealed that women who participated in high fitness delayed dementia by at least five years compared to those that participated in medium fitness. The findings concluded that overall participation in cardiovascular health can assist with preventing dementia. (22)
From these studies, we can conclude that walking and overall cardiovascular-focused exercises improved brain function and thinking skills, and while there are many more questions to be answered about the connection between exercise and dementia, taking a walk around the block seems like a viable first step to a healthy brain.
Risk Factors and Root Causes
As scientists continue to study this family of diseases, it’s clear that certain factors impact a person’s risk of dementia. Some of these things cannot be avoided, like getting older. However, the great news is that many potential causes of dementia can be avoided.
- Age. The older you are, the greater the risk of developing a form of dementia.
- Alcohol. Drinking moderate mounts of alcohol could protect your from dementia, but excessive drinking over a long period of time actually increases your risk. (It’s best to avoid too much alcohol for a number of reasons. Alcohol and breast cancer risk are also closely linked, for instance.)
- Atherosclerosis. When fats and cholesterol accumulate in your arteries and inflammation thickens your blood vessel walls, your brain isn’t able to receive the blood it needs.
- High “bad” LDL cholesterol levels
- Type 2 diabetes
- Down syndrome
- Less early education
- Hearing loss
- Physical inactivity
- Social isolation
Dementia doesn’t happen overnight and is characterized by gradual changes and damage in the brain. Here are different types of dementia and root causes: (25)
Whether it comes on suddenly with a stroke or more slowly over time with atherosclerosis, vascular dementia occurs when the brain is not getting enough blood. This causes brain cell death that leads to brain damage.
The most common type of dementia, Alzheimer’s affects the cerebral cortex and is characterized by “plagues” and “tangles” that result in the loss of brain cells and ensuing brain shrinkage.
Neurotransmitter chemicals lose their ability to healthily relay messages between brain cells in this form of dementia.
Dementia with Lewy Bodies
An autopsy found that the brain of late actor Robin Williams was afflicted with this type of dementia. This condition is characterized by small, circular lumps of protein that develop inside of brain cells. There’s still much we don’t know about this disease, but it’s possible it impacts the chemical messengers dopamine and acetylcholine.
This type of dementia is characterized by damage and shrinking in the temporal and frontal lobes. It’s a more common type of dementia in people younger than 65 years old; about 20 percent of cases have an inherited genetic mutation from their parents.
Much Rarer Causes of Dementia
The following triggers of dementia or dementia-like symptoms are considered treatable, or at the very least, they don’t progress like traditional forms of dementia:
- brain tumors
- head injury
- vitamin B deficiency
- infections like encephalitis or HIV
- thyroid hormone deficiency
Dementia is an umbrella term for a group of cognitive disorders typically characterized by:
- Memory impairment
- Difficulty with language
- Problems with object recognition
- Motor activity difficulties
- Problems planning and organizing
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, accounting for 60 percent to 80 percent of dementia cases.
Dementia is a general term for loss of memory and other mental abilities severe enough to interfere with daily life. It’s caused by physical changes in the brain. Around the world, more than 44 million have Alzheimer’s or related dementia. (26)
Economic Impact of Dementia
Dementia is not only a public health crisis, but an economic one, too. Today, Alzheimer’s alone costs the U.S. economy $226 billion. If nothing is done to slow down the disease, Alzheimer’s could pose a real threat to the economy, potentially bankrupting Medicare. If the number of people living with Alzheimer’s hits 16 million by 2050 as predicted, it could cost the U.S. economy $1.1 trillion, economists say. (27)
It’s emotionally taxing to watch a loved one decline as dementia sets in and progresses, but there is increasing hope and evidence that a comprehensive, personalized approach can work to slow or even reverse the disease.
We also know that while some causes of dementia are genetic, lifestyle factors play a large role, too. That’s great news because it gives you more control to take action and prevent symptoms by:
- following a more Mediterranean diet
- exercising regularly, at least 150 minutes a week
- filtering excess copper from your water
- finding a purpose in life
- practicing good oral hygiene
- avoiding unnecessary drugs linked to dementia
- sleeping on your side
- eating lots or organic produce
- maintaining healthy vitamin D levels
- addressing education, midlife hypertension, obesity, hearing loss, depression, diabetes, physical inactivity, smoking and social isolation
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