Dementia shares key risk factors with cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, being overweight, and smoking. Inflammation and oxidative stress (when protective antioxidants lose their fight with damaging free radicals) follow. This damages blood vessels and reduces the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain.
Without enough oxygen, brain cells can’t function effectively, and they eventually die. Reduced blood flow also leaves the brain vulnerable to the plaques and tangles that are seen in forms of dementia.
But by changing our habits, we can both improve heart health and reduce the risk of dementia. Here are five lifestyle changes that we can make today to protect cognitive function tomorrow.
Eat 2 to 3 Servings of Oily Fish Each Week
Oily fish, such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel, are rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory effects and have been shown to significantly reduce blood pressure.
Omega-3s are also needed to support the structure and function of our brain cells and are “essential nutrients.” This means that we need to get them from our diet. This is especially true as we age, because reductions in omega-3 intake have been linked to faster rates of cognitive decline.
Eat Plant Foods With Every Meal
Plant foods, such as leafy greens, extra-virgin olive oil, blueberries, nuts, and pulses, contain a range of vitamins and minerals, including polyphenols, flavonoids, carotenoids, vitamin C, and vitamin E. These micronutrients have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that protect and improve our blood vessel functioning.
Diets high in plant foods, such as the Mediterranean diet, have been shown to improve blood pressure, glucose regulation, and body composition and have also been linked to lower rates of cognitive decline, better markers of brain health, and a lower risk of dementia.
Eat Less Processed Food
On the other hand, saturated fats, refined carbohydrates, and red and processed meats are believed to trigger inflammatory pathways. Highly processed foods have been linked to hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity.
Eating more of these foods means that we’re also likely to miss out on the benefits of other foods. Whole grains (such as whole oats, rye, buckwheat, and barley) provide fiber, vitamin B, vitamin E, magnesium, and phytonutrients which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Refined grains (such as white bread, rice, and pasta) are highly processed, meaning many of these beneficial nutrients are removed.
Get Physical and Make It Fun
Physical activity can reduce inflammation and blood pressure while improving blood vessel functioning. This helps the body deliver more oxygen to the brain, improving memory and other cognitive functions affected by dementia.
Guidelines suggest that adults should engage in physical activity on most days, break up long bouts of inactivity (such as watching TV), and incorporate some resistance exercises. The key to forming long-term exercise habits is choosing physical activities that you enjoy and making small, gradual increases in activity. Any movement that raises your heart rate can be classified as physical activity, including gardening, walking, and even household chores.
Smokers are 60 percent more likely to develop dementia than non-smokers. This is because smoking increases inflammation and oxidative stress that harm the structure and function of our blood vessels.
Quitting smoking can begin to reverse these effects. In fact, former smokers have a significantly lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia compared to current smokers, similar to that of people who have never smoked.
Is It Too Late?
It’s never too early or too late to begin making these changes.
Obesity and high blood pressure in midlife are key predictors of dementia risk, while diabetes, physical inactivity, and smoking are stronger predictors later in life. Regular physical activity earlier in life can reduce blood pressure and decrease your risk of diabetes. Like giving up smoking, changes at any stage of life can reduce inflammation and change your dementia risk.
Little by Little
It can be overwhelming to change your whole diet, start a new exercise program, and quit smoking all at once. But even small changes can lead to significant improvements in health. Start by making manageable swaps, such as using extra-virgin olive oil in place of margarine or other cooking oils; swapping one serving of processed food, such as chips, white bread, or commercial biscuits, for a handful of nuts; swapping one serving of meat each week for one serving of oily fish; swapping five minutes of sedentary time for five minutes of walking and slowly increase that time each day.
is a research associate at the University of South Australia, is a senior lecturer in exercise physiology at the University of South Australia, and is a doctoral candidate at the University of South Australia. This article was first published on The Conversation.