The growing number of people making up Australia's ageing population reflect both modern medicines advances, and its limits. You might be kept alive for longer, but your chance of being amongst this 80+ sub-group without cognitive decline or disease are sadly not as likely. Dementia represents one of the most common and debilitating conditions affecting this ageing population. What’s more, widespread misunderstanding and fear surrounding it, mean dementia's reach is spread out across all ages of the population, and every stage of life. The condition represents a key fear for many individuals. Many of which are resigned to the illusion it’s something completely out of our control.
Below, we aim to shed some light on the unanswered questions which add fuel to the fire of dementia fear: is our chance of diagnosis set in stone? Can we prolong good cognitive health? And are there further steps we can take when planning for the future, to instead reduce our chance of losing capacity at all?
Here's what’s up next:
What actually is dementia?
Am I at risk?
What Chris Hemsworth has to do with understanding dementia risk
How to offset the chance of dementia diagnosis?
Why it’s important to think ahead
What is dementia?
Dementia is a progressive brain disorder that affects memory, thinking, and behaviour. Whilst symptoms and progression varies from person to person, common symptoms include memory loss, difficulty with language, disorientation, mood swings, and difficulty with daily activities. Contrary to popular belief, dementia is not actually a single disease. But rather, a term used to describe a collection of symptoms that occur when the brain is damaged or diseased, most commonly from Alzheimer's disease.
No two people with dementia will have the same experience, and whilst there's currently no cure, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that certain lifestyle changes can help to prevent or delay the onset of this condition. In contrast, other factors or lifestyle practices can increase the risk of dementia and progressive brain decline. Read on to identify where you might lie on this spectrum, and find ways to offset this risk.
What is my risk of a future dementia diagnosis?
Certain factors increase the risk of developing dementia, including:
None of these factors are associated with a definite certainty of developing dementia. But it's important to understand which areas of your current lifestyle might currently be offsetting or increasing your risk of a future diagnosis. This is particularly relevant for people with increased genetic risk. Australian born and bred, health freak and hugely successful Chris Hemsworth stands as a key example of this important relationship between genetics and lifestyle. Let's find out why.
What Chris Hemsworth can teach us about genetic risk of dementia
Through genetic tests in his latest health/ lifestyle documentary ‘Limitless’, Chris Hemsworth recently shared his discovery that he possesses an above average number of copies of APO4- a gene associated with increased dementia risk. He’s the picture of health, cognitively stimulated with work, socially active and still young. Yet he could be faced with a future diagnosis of dementia. Is he doomed? Should he give up on the bicep curls, ice baths and meditation practises now?
Quite the opposite. In sharing his recent discovery, Hemsworth and his team of experts have been keen to push the message that healthy lifestyle factors are key to reducing your risk, and delay any onset of cognitive decline. For anyone with increased genetic risk, the adoption of these efforts are even more relevant and potentially life changing.
That’s because, fundamentally, there's no one ‘death sentence’ factor when it comes to dementia diagnosis. It’s all about increasing or decreasing risk, and strengthening your brain’s capacity so that any damage takes longer to affect you seriously, if at all. With this in mind, there's things we can all do to push the risk needle either way on determining the future state of your brain health. And whilst Chris Hemsworth might have a bigger budget than most to fund his continued healthy lifestyle efforts, most of the basics really don’t take millions. We’ve included some simple, accessible and science-backed lifestyle tips relevant to you at any age or starting point below.
Lifestyle practises you can adopt to reduce your risk of dementia
1. Nourishing diet
A colourful diet filled with lots of whole-foods has been linked to increased brain health, and reduced risk of dementia. Getting in a range of fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds can tick the boxes on brain-nourishing vitamins and antioxidants. Things like oily fish, rich in Omega-3’s, have also been linked to increased brain health and extra safe-guarding against future decline.
Having good cardiovascular health can help maintain healthy blood flow to your brain, as well as promote increased cell rejuvenation and increased brain functioning which offset dementia risk. Even just getting your steps in and staying mobile throughout the day can go a long way for the brain, as well as wider health.
Individuals who slept for under 5 hours a night were found to be twice as likely to develop dementia compared to those who slept six to eight hours per night. In simple terms; sleep represents an important time for the brain to restore and replenish all the good stuff, whilst simultaneously flushing out the bad stuff. Lack of sleep undermines this process, as the brain has insufficient time to work to maintain it’s healthy balance. This leads to unhealthy build up of beta-amyloid proteins and other substances which can cause dementia.
Establishing consistent sleep routines- such as minimising night light exposure and afternoon caffeine intake- is therefore important to reduce your risk of dementia. All with the added benefit of making you feel more energised day to day.
Extensive research has pointed to the positive effects of meditation on reducing dementia risk, as well as altering the course of existing dementia diagnoses. One study in particular found reversed memory loss and reduced anxiety amongst a group of participants with early cognitive decline, following just 8 weeks of yoga and meditation practices. Similarly, improvements in attention and memory in individuals with dementia diagnoses have been attributed to the benefits of meditation.
Fundamentally, in reducing stress levels, meditation has been shown to have the power to improve brain functioning in a way which offsets dementia risk. If you can achieve similar stress reduction through yoga, walking, blissing out to some music or cooking- then these can also represent key tools for safeguarding your brain health.
5. Learn new things
Learning instruments, new languages or coordination sports has been linked to the formation of new connections within the brain. Providing your brain with new challenges works the same as growing muscles in the gym. By increasing the weights, comes new challenges, new adaptations, and ultimate growth of the muscles. If that same person has an accident which renders them unable to keep lifting weights, they have a higher base-rate of muscle, and it takes longer for the negative effects of muscle deterioration to show.
The same goes for the brain and this idea of ‘cognitive reserve’- whereby more brain connections mean with any brain damage associated with dementia, it takes longer before cognitive decline symptoms become debilitating.
Through this same mechanism of providing challenge and stimulation to the brain, socialising can have powerful offsetting effects when it comes to dementia and cognitive decline. Being with others is associated with reduced risk of loneliness, depression and high blood pressure- which all increase risk of dementia.
Why it’s beneficial to start thinking ahead, now
It's important to note there’s no guarantees that following these lifestyle changes will prevent dementia. What’s important is controlling what we can, such as lifestyle choices, to help sway the odds in our favour. Or, if nothing else, our years in good health.
Thinking ahead can not only reduce your chance of dementia, but allow you to put plans in place should the worst occur. Planning your estate, writing your will and putting power of attorney provisions in place can be an important way to ensure your wishes are seen through regardless of what the future holds.