How does diet affect dementia?
Dementia is a progressive condition affecting the way the brain works. It can cause poor memory, confusion about time and place, difficulties with speech, poor judgement, and inappropriate behaviour.
There are a number of risk factors which make it more likely that an individual will develop dementia. Some are easier to do something about than others. This article aims to arm you with enough information to put up the best fight you can against developing this disease.
The effects of dementia
Dementia is caused by several conditions, of which the two common ones are Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia.
I have had experience of dementia both as a GP and as a carer for an elderly relative who developed the condition. I am all too aware of the effect it can have on the person themselves and on the family trying to care for them. It's like a slow dripping tap. People start off being able to cope (and sometimes cover up their difficulties brilliantly) but eventually it becomes harder, and all sorts of chaos follows. In my relative's case, it was loss of her husband (who was revealed as her main carer) which exposed just how much her mental function had deteriorated.
For the person themself, dementia is often a frightening experience. Memory loss is the hardest thing to bear. We don't realise how much we rely on memory in our daily lives until things start to go wrong. It is the road map which helps us get from A to B. Without it, the world can be a very confusing and scary place.
Dementia risk factors
There are a number of elements that can increase or decrease your risk of developing dementia. Some of these can be avoided, while others are completely out of your control. Having any of the risk factors below doesn't necessarily mean you will develop the disease in future. And likewise, avoiding these factors (the ones within your control, anyway) will not guarantee you won't get dementia, but it will improve your chances of avoiding it.
The risk of dementia rises with age. At the age 60, 1 in 100 people will have it. By age 75, this figure rises to 6 in a 100. Unfortunately, no one has yet worked out how to reverse the ageing process, unless you count Dr Who and his sonic screwdriver.
Scientists have discovered a gene called APOE4. If you inherit this gene you are more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. Research suggests that women are much more affected than men. If you want to avoid this gene, choose your parents wisely. Removing this gene before birth isn't yet possible, but who knows what's around the corner?
A recent Lancet review found that smoking increases your risk of dementia by about 5%. A small percentage perhaps (as indeed most of these risk factors are) but they all mount up.
Not that old chestnut again, I hear you say. But the fact of the matter is that physical activity benefits you in so many ways, all of which add together. Not only does it reduce your risk of dementia by nearly 3% but it also lowers your chances of developing type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, which themselves are risk factors for dementia.
Science points to a link between depression and dementia. Of course, "don't get depressed" is much easier said than done. But one of the biggest contributors to poor mental health as people get older is social isolation. Old friends die, families move away, and before you know it you don't see another person from one day to the next. If this is starting to happen you need to take positive steps to make contact with others. Join a club, get in touch with people who share similar interests or find people online to chat to. Age UK also has some great suggestions for those who are feeling lonely.
What about diet?
"There is encouraging evidence a higher adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with improving cognition, slowing cognitive decline or reducing the conversion to Alzheimer's," said Dr Roy Hardman from the Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne.
If you live in Croydon rather than Cordoba and would rather not mess around with all those beans and nuts, you can take supplements, although this is probably a more expensive way of getting these substances into your body. The most important constituent seems to be omega-3 which has been shown to slow the brain shrinkage associated with Alzheimer's disease. New research suggests it works best in people who also take B vitamins.
Oxford professor David Smith, who led the study, said: "This is a very exciting and important result. It is the first treatment to show Alzheimer's-related brain shrinkage can be prevented. It means that something so simple as keeping your omega-3 levels high and supplementing B vitamins if you are at risk could dramatically reduce a person's risk.”
However, not all the research on diet supplementation is convincing. A study of people drinking a daily solution of vitamins, essential fatty acids and other nutrients failed to improve key markers of Alzheimer's disease, although it did improve daily cognition.
"This study hints that a medical drink could slow the decline of thinking skills in people experiencing mild memory problems," said Dr Doug Brown, Director of Research at the Alzheimer's Society. However, noting that the trial did not meet its success criteria, he added: "We cannot be confident of the drink's benefits."
Keep on keeping on
So I guess there are no magic answers to reducing your risk of dementia. It's the same advice you've heard many times: eat healthily, exercise plenty and live your life to the full. Not very exciting, I'm afraid, but perhaps reassuring that you don't need to pour expensive supplements down your throat to prevent memory loss.