Juliet Holt Klinger, MA, Expert on Dementia Care

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20 May 2019

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) released updated guidelines for reducing your risk of dementia. Much of the information isn’t new: eating well and exercising will reduce your risk of cognitive decline. However, there are four key factors that I find interesting.

What’s good for your heart is good for your brain

The updated information is a solid reminder that what we eat, how much we move, and how socially engaged we stay, all contribute to our brain health. Also, these factors are under our power to improve. Some tips are obvious: WHO strongly advises against smoking and heavy drinking. There’s also an emphasis on managing blood pressure and weight, which can both help reduce your risk for dementia.

What I found most interesting is how the report specifically applauds the Mediterranean diet, which is primarily plant-based foods, healthy oils like olive oil, whole grains and lean meat. This diet’s relation to cognitive function has been extensively studied and as the WHO report states, “several systematic reviews of observational studies have concluded that high adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with decreased risk of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease, but modest adherence is not.”

The evidence is compelling enough to swap butter for olive oil and burgers for salmon.

Expect less of the supplements

Supplements and vitamins are part of a healthy routine, but the WHO says they will not reduce your risk for dementia. Particularly, vitamins B and E, polyunsaturated fatty acids and multi-complex supplements. The international health organization isn’t saying that you should skip them for your general health, but don’t expect them to affect your cognition.

The loneliness factor

The positive effects of socialization are well documented. The Health Resources and Services Administration found that loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The study also found that forty-three percent of seniors feel lonely on a regular basis and there is a 45 percent increased risk of mortality in seniors who feel lonely.

WHO also stresses the importance of social interaction and social support as factors in overall quality of life and well-being. However, there isn’t enough evidence to link loneliness to cognitive decline.

Disproportionate effects on women

It might not be a coincidence that the report was released the same week as National Women’s Health Week. Women are hit with the epidemic twofold: they are more at risk for developing dementia, and they are more likely to care for someone living with the disease.  According to the Alzheimer’s Association, in the United States alone, almost two-thirds of Americans living with Alzheimer’s today are women and about 13 million women are either living with Alzheimer’s themselves or caring for someone who has it. According to a recent study by the AARP, 22 percent of caregivers said their health had gotten worse since taking on the role and 50 percent of those who feel like they have no other choice but to take on a caregiver role report high levels of stress.

What’s important to remember is that women need to take charge of their own health and put themselves first more often—especially as they age. That is never truer than when one considers dementia risk. Whether we are care partnering with a loved one with the disease or considering our own health, taking these guidelines to heart is a good first step at improving our future.

The bottom line is that there is no cure for dementia, and it is not an inevitable part of aging. However, living a healthy lifestyle can help prevent the disease.

That, my friends, is up to you.

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