Preventing or reducing your risk of dementia starts now – here’s how
The risks and symptoms of dementia and how to prevent it
Defined by a gradual loss of memory, problems with thinking and reasoning, impact on speech, personality, behaviour and mobility, and an inability to carry on with work and life activities independently, dementia is, understandably, a daunting health condition.
There were approximately 400,000 Australians living with dementia in 2022, equivalent to 15 people in every 1,000, increasing to 84 per 1,000 aged 65 and over. Of these, two thirds are female.
General practitioner and author Dr Preya Alexander says there are certainly ways to reduce risk of dementia. The best part? You can start now.
In this article, we’ll answer some of your biggest questions on dementia, from what it is, risk factors and symptoms to whether or not it can be prevented.
What is dementia?
Dementia is a progressive brain syndrome which has many different forms – Alzheimer’s is the most common, with other forms including vascular dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies. In the majority of cases, there is no genetic link. There’s no cure yet, but some medications can reduce symptoms.
Symptoms of dementia
Symptoms of dementia can vary, explains Preeya.
“There are a range of potential symptoms that may indicate an underlying issue, so if in doubt have a chat to your doctor,” she says. “For concerned family members, try your best to visit the GP with your family member, as a full picture of their health history, such as family history, is extremely helpful when exploring a potential memory issue.”
A few common symptoms of dementia symptoms:
Short-term memory loss
Difficulty finding words
Confusion about time and place
Changes in personality or behaviour
A loss of interest in activities that used to be enjoyed
If you’re experiencing simple forgetfulness, resist jumping to any conclusions.
“Forgetfulness is not always dementia. There are many things that can impact memory such as iron deficiency, hypothyroidism and depression,” explains Preeya.
Risk factors for dementia
While there are some risk factors for dementia you can’t modify, such as increasing age or inherited genes, there are many you can, says Preeya. Among them are excessive alcohol intake, a lack of physical activity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
“Aim for 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week,” Preeya advises. “Also, ensure blood pressure and cholesterol are managed to reduce your risk.”
Another risk factor for dementia is smoking.
“If you’re a smoker, quitting is not only good for the heart but also for the brain,” says Preeya. “Know there are multiple sources of support available and quitting means improving overall health while reducing dementia risk.”
Ways to lower your risk of dementia
Here are 3 ways you can reduce your risk of developing dementia:
1. Eat a healthy diet
It’s not news to anyone that what you put into your body impacts your brain activity, so it stands to reason that a healthy diet can reduce risk of dementia.
“Eating well can help the brain, as well the rest of the body,” says Preeya. “Dietary interventions such as aiming for a diet high in fruit and vegetables, choosing unsaturated fats – as opposed to saturated ones – and limiting alcohol intake can help protect against dementia.”
Healthy fats are found in foods such as olive oil, avocados, unsalted nuts and sunflower oil, while unhealthy (saturated) fats are found in butter, coconut oil, cream, fat on meat and ice-cream.
What you put into your body impacts your brain activity – a healthy diet can reduce the risk of dementia
2. Look after your heart
Your heart and brain health are very closely related and, by looking after your heart, you’ll also help protect yourself against dementia.
“Staying physically active, managing blood pressure and cholesterol issues while protecting your heart is also protecting your brain,” explains Preeya.
If you suffer from cardiovascular conditions such as high blood pressure, ensure you’re working with your GP or a specialist to stay ahead of it as both your heart and brain will thank you, she advises.
3. Test your brain
If you’re a Sunday sudoku-frequent, you’re in luck – brain exercises can help in dementia prevention.
“Doing lots of brain exercises regularly can help protect the brain against dementia – so crosswords and sudoku aren’t just a hobby, they’re also great for the brain,” Preeya confirms.
Ready to get started? We’ve compiled 10 brain exercises that will help improve your memory. These training tricks are surprisingly easy – and you might already be doing some of them.
Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.
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Dr Preeya Alexander
Dr Preeya Alexander is a Melbourne-based GP. Between running a busy clinic load and family life, she is passionate about educating Australians with evidence-based health information across a range of channels and loves nothing more than bringing out her 'inner Beyonce'.