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Dementia demystified

We’ve all heard of dementia, but not everyone understands what causes it, what we can do to treat it, and if there’s any way of avoiding it. 

What is dementia?

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, the word dementia describes a set of symptoms that can include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language, as well as disorientation and a decline in skills such as judging distances. Dementia is an umbrella term for a number of conditions that cause these symptoms, including Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies.

What causes it?

Conditions such as Alzheimer's disease or a series of strokes can cause brain damage that leads to dementia. Around one in 14 people over the age of 65 will develop dementia at some stage – the likelihood increases with age – and each person will experience specific symptoms according to the part of the brain that is damaged and what is causing the dementia.

Is there anything we can do to avoid dementia?

According to Dr Louise Walker from Alzheimer’s Society: “There is no one thing that we can do to definitely avoid dementia. The evidence so far shows that the best ways to reduce your risk of dementia are to take plenty of exercise, eat a healthy balanced diet and stop smoking.

“There is also some evidence that keeping your mind active may help to reduce your risk. Doing puzzles and crosswords, reading and trying out arts and crafts activities are all good ways to keep your mind busy, as well as getting out and about with friends and family.

“However,” she adds: “While it has been suggested that these could help to keep your brain healthy, currently there is no evidence that these activities will prevent or delay the onset of dementia.”

Most of the research around this has been observational, where people have reported to researchers how often they do puzzles, such as crosswords and Sudoku.

Some studies have found that those people who often do these brain-stimulating activities seem to have better brain health. But this is not enough to draw a line linking puzzles to better brain health as there may be many other factors at play, such as eating a healthier diet or getting regular exercise.

Healthy lifestyle choices

The Alzheimer’s Society has created a useful factsheet on dementia, which explains that while it is not always known why someone has developed dementia, evidence shows that having high blood pressure, smoking and a lack of exercise all increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. It is possibly because these things lead to a narrowing of the arteries, potentially reducing the amount of oxygen and essential nutrients reaching the brain.
According to the Alzheimer’s Society, the following (particularly in middle age) are all linked to a reduced risk of dementia:

  • Taking regular physical exercise (for example cycling, brisk walking)

  • Not smoking

  • Eating a balanced diet – one that is low in saturated fat and without too much salt, dairy or meat, and includes plenty of fish and fresh fruit and vegetables

  • Keeping blood pressure in check

  • If you have diabetes, making sure you manage your condition well. Of course, these healthy lifestyle choices will also reduce the risk of other serious conditions such as stroke, heart disease and cancer

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