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Prevention of Dementia and Other Cognitive Disorders

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D., edited by Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D.

Some individuals with a family history of Alzheimer's Disease or a related disorder will not develop dementia, while others with no family history will develop these disorders. This evidence, along with a growing body of research, suggests that cognitive disorders are not totally governed by genetics; our lifestyle and other factors play a role in our risk for developing these illnesses.

Unfortunately, there is no "vaccine" against dementia, nor is there a guarantee that the prevention methods we discuss here will work for everyone. However, healthy lifestyle choices regarding diet, nutrition, exercise, and intellectual and social activity can reduce the risk of developing dementia and other cognitive disorders.

Diet/Nutrition

Research suggests that adopting a "brain-healthy" diet can reduce the risk for developing dementia. A brain-healthy diet avoids saturated fat and cholesterol and includes: 

  • Dark-skinned fruits and vegetables, such as red bell peppers, broccoli, spinach, eggplant, Brussels sprouts, beets, red grapes, cherries, blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, strawberries, raspberries, and oranges. Dark-skinned fruits and vegetables have the highest levels of naturally occurring antioxidants (chemicals that decrease the number of damaging free radicals in the body; see our previous discussion on this topic by clicking here).
  • Cold-water fish, such as anchovies, herring, salmon, sardines, trout, tuna, and whitefish. Cold-water fish contain Omega-3 fatty acids, which we cannot synthesize on our own and are important for the development of cells and cell membranes. Specifically, Omega-3 fatty acids can nourish brain cell membranes and enhance nerve function, learning, and memory.
  • Other foods that contain Omega-3 fatty acids, such as avocados, Brazil nuts, canola oil, cashews, flaxseed oil, green leafy vegetables, olive oil, peanut oil, pistachios, and walnuts. Nuts also contain Vitamin E, which is a potent antioxidant.

Supplements like Vitamins B-12, C, E, and folate may also help maintain a healthy brain. However, it is better to obtain these nutrients directly from food, if possible.

Exercise

Starting and maintaining a regular exercise program is often the most difficult lifestyle change to implement with regard to brain health. Many people have a hard time finding ways to fit exercise into their busy lifestyles. Fortunately, physical activity doesn't have to be overly strenuous or involve a huge time commitment to create benefits. The most important thing is that it is done on a regular basis.

Cardiovascular exercise (exercise that strengthens the pumping force of your heart, such as swimming, walking, running, and cycling) and resistance training (exercise that strengthens muscles, such as weight lifting and sit-ups) are the best types of exercise for brain health. Some types of exercise (e.g., swimming and cross-country skiing) provide both cardiovascular and resistance training benefits.

Exercise is beneficial because it increases the production of glutathione, a key antioxidant that protects against free radical damage. People who are sedentary have low glutathione levels, meaning that free radicals are more likely to damage cells, including brain cells. Exercise also increases blood flow to the brain, encouraging the development of new brain cells, and reduces the risk of cardiovascular conditions that are associated with Alzheimer's Disease and Vascular Dementia. Aim for at least thirty minutes a day of cardiovascular and/or resistive exercise per day for maximum "brain health" and protective effects.

Mental Activity

Keeping the brain active increases connections between brain cells and builds up "cognitive reserve." The new connections that are cultivated between brain cells create a buffer which can compensate for a loss of cognitive functioning if dementia sets in. This buffer seems to allow people with higher cognitive reserve to avoid showing symptoms of cognitive decline for a longer period of time than individuals with little cognitive reserve if they develop an illness such as Alzheimer's Disease. Mental activity can also create new brain cells well into old age, debunking the old myth that brain cells cannot be generated after childhood.

To stay mentally active, it is important to commit to the idea of lifelong learning. The key is to add novelty to your experiences by learning and doing new things (rather than just repeating old activities). Excellent ways to stay mentally active include reading; writing; doing crossword puzzles or other kinds of games; attending classes, lectures, and plays; and taking up new hobbies. Even watching television can be mentally engaging, but only if you are watching television to learn something new (e.g., to learn how to build something or how the Grand Canyon was formed) instead of watching television simply to pass the time.

Social Engagement

Social interaction is good for the brain because it stimulates connections between brain cells, particularly in the tips of the frontal lobe (the front part of the brain). Research suggests that social activities which combine physical and mental activity are the most effective at preventing dementia. For instance, walking with a friend while talking about a topic that requires problem solving is better than just walking, just visiting a friend, or just problem solving while alone. Great ways to stay socially active include being involved in work or volunteer activities, joining clubs, and traveling, particularly in organized travel groups.

While eating a brain-healthy diet, exercising, being mentally active, and being socially active are each good ways to reduce one's risk of developing dementia or other cognitive disorders, the combination of all of these preventive methods is more effective than adopting any one of them independently. Preventing dementia or other cognitive disorders is best approached in a multidimensional way, involving several lifestyle changes that connect and support each other.