By Drs. David Niesel and Norbert Herzog
“When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.”
While American novelist Mark Twain can invariably add his iconic sense of humor to any situation, it is no laughing matter when patients lose their memories and cognitive function to dementia. And for their family members, there is hardly anything harder than caring for a loved one who can no longer remember them or any shared experiences. But lowering a person’s risk of dementia may be as simple as changing his or her lifestyle.
The incidence of dementia increases with age. As the average age of Americans increases, the number of people with dementia also increases. In 2010, more than 30 million people worldwide had dementia, and this figure is estimated to more than triple by 2050.
Despite the many medical advances over the past 20 years, there are no effective pharmacological therapies for dementia yet. Some drugs are being evaluated and still others are in development, but it could be some time before there is a truly successful treatment for this disease.
However, studies have uncovered risk factors that can lead to dementia, such as low physical and mental activity, obesity, hypertension and hyperlipidemia. The good news is that all these risk factors can be controlled by changes in a person’s lifestyle and behavior.
A group of scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm examined the effects of lifestyle modification on dementia risks. One of the strongest correlations to reducing the risk of dementia is increasing physical activity. Changing from a sedentary lifestyle to one with at least moderate physical activity will also improve cognitive performance. Both aerobic exercise and strength training may delay of the onset of dementia.
For those with nutritional deficiencies, taking vitamin supplements did help prevent dementia onset, but those with normal levels did not affect their dementia risk by taking supplements.
Computer games have become a popular way to enhance mental abilities in older people. There are some positive effects of gaming on cognitive performance, but these effects decline with age. A recent study showed that improvements in language skills and reasoning abilities lasted for a full year after computerized training. While encouraging, more clinical trials are needed to establish the benefits of these activities on cognitive functions and the delay of dementia.
For now, the best advice to delay or prevent dementia is to engage in physical exercise and maintain a healthy weight and diet.