Keep Your Brain On The Ball - Combating Dementia and Alzheimer's

By our resident health adviser Dr Muir Gray

For many people, cancer is no longer the most feared disease. The number 1 fear is now of Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease but what are these conditions and how do they relate to the normal process of ageing?

Firstly, we need to be clear about the decline in certain intellectual abilities as ageing proceeds. The most common changes are a decline in the ability to remember recently acquired facts such as the name of someone just met and the loss of the ability to make certain types of decision quickly.

These are normal changes and you can adapt to these changes. For example, when you meet a new person with an uncommon name ask them where the name comes from. If they have a common name like Smith picture it in a way that you will remember that person, for example, if you met Susan Smith picture her in a blacksmith’s outfit hammering a red hot horseshoe.

Furthermore, the developments of Post-Its and the smart phone allow us to set reminders, record names and make job lists much more easily. Secondly, quick decisions are helpful in pub quizzes but the most important decisions in life need not, and should not, be made quickly and there is increasing awareness of the benefits of experience, which Oscar Wilde said was the name we gave to our mistakes, in decision making. Many older people have better styles of decision making because they take their time, reflect on their experience and weigh up all the options.

However, some people do develop Alzheimer’s disease, some dementia and some both and the terms are used in different ways by different doctors, which is very confusing. Here is how the Alzheimer’s Disease Society define them;

“The word dementia describes a set of symptoms that may include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. Dementia is caused when the brain is damaged by diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease or a series of strokes”.

At the moment the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease cannot be reduced, although there are now some treatments which improve the person’s abilities. However for the most common type of dementia called vascular dementia the risk can be reduced and NICE the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence , which summarises all the evidence from research for the NHS, has published a report calling for action, to delay or prevent the onset of disability and dementia because dementia is caused not only by a series of strokes but by gradual narrowing of the small arteries in the brain and a general reduction in the flow of oxygen to the brain.

Their recommendations are that we should reduce the risk of dementia by making it easier for people to:

  • stop smoking
  • be more physically active
  • reduce their alcohol consumption
  • adopt a healthy diet
  • achieve and/or maintain a healthy weight.

The prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease needs more research but the risk of dementia can be reduced by keeping your blood vessels healthy and looking after your general health and wellbeing, plenty of exercise, which appears to have a direct beneficial effect on the brain as well as keeping the blood vessels healthy, and a good diet such as the Mediterranean diet but without the daily glass of red wine so often quoted as part of it.

Be careful about all drugs, including prescribed drugs, and alcohol, and it is a good plan to have at least 2 alcohol free days a week from 50, 3 from 60 and four a week from 70.

Keep your brain on the ball so that you stay on the ball too.

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