How to reduce your risk of dementia

By Dr. Kate Gregorevic, February 13th 2017

The more we learn about the dementia, the more we learn how much of it is preventable. Worldwide, increasing physical activity could prevent up to a million new cases of dementia each year. Our brains are also like muscles as they need exercise and challenge to maintain peak performance. A recent review published in BMC Geriatrics found that a combination of physical and cognitive exercise is even better for avoiding dementia, but what does this mean and how can you incorporate this into everyday life?

Many of our daily activities use our bodies and brains simultaneously. When we cook dinner we are conceptualising the meal we want to create. We plan the ingredients needed then take them from our pantry and fridge. We prepare them using our hands. We move around the kitchen, aware of the space around us, as we put things on to cook and remove them when they are done. Planning and preparing a meal is a surprisingly complex activity. This is called dual tasking.

Cognitive exercises have also been shown to improve memory, spatial awareness and executive function. Executive function refers to the complex planning and reasoning that is performed by the frontal parts of the brain in humans. It includes the ability to perform abstract thought, to reconsider a situation and change your mind and to think before acting. This part of the brain contributes to the ability to focus attention. People who have dysfunction in the frontal lobes of the brain can also become more apathetic and experience labile mood with frequent mood swings.

In a study that looked at a combined intervention using exercise and cognitive training, even watching an educational DVD and answering questions afterwards was as effective as computer training. The participants also attended exercise classes at the local YMCA, which included 30 minutes of aerobic activity, 10 minutes of strength along with some stretching. All groups in this 12-week trial had improvement in cognitive testing.

Many of the family members of dementia sufferers are terrified of suffering the same fate as their loved ones and developing dementia. Sadly, there is still no cure for dementia, but the rates of dementia are going down. An 85-year-old today is less likely to have dementia than 20 years ago. This demonstrates the great strides we are making in preventing dementia by controlling cardiovascular risk factors, such as blood pressure and decreased rates of smoking. By including an enjoyable physical activity as a routine part of life, whether it is a brisk walk or an exercise class with friends, you can significantly decrease your chance of dementia. It doesn’t seem to matter which cognitive activity you choose, as long as it is a challenge. It’s probably not enough to watch an interesting documentary on television, but there is increasing evidence for computer based brain training. Even better, try a physically and mentally challenging activity like yoga or tai chi.

Our research found that a successful training program includes cardiovascular or strength training sessions combined with attention, or executive function/working memory practice. It seems that both cardiovascular and strength exercises are needed for the training to exert a positive influence on cognitive performance.

However, there is no one best cognitive and physical activity to prevent dementia. The key is consistency, so that you can stay motivated. It is not enough to make a temporary lifestyle change, dementia is a chronic disease, and prevention takes long-term change. The best motivation to exercise is by doing something that is enjoyable today!

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