According to the Alzheimer's Association, dementia is defined as declining mental function severe enough to interfere with daily life. Simple memory loss is an example, and Alzheimer's is probably the most well-known form of dementia.
"One of the scariest aspects of dementia is how it seems to strike randomly," says Donna B. Fedus, M.A., gerontologist and founder of Borrow My Glasses: Aging and Caregiving from a New Perspective. "Anyone could be vulnerable. While it’s true that we still don’t know with certainty why one person gets it and another doesn’t, research is showing that we may have more control than previously thought."
Here are some things we might be doing now that may increase our chances of developing dementia when we're older.
A sedentary lifestyle puts you at risk of developing heart disease, but it's also bad for your brain. "Exercising regularly does reduce risk for multiple diseases of old age, including dementia," says Fedus. Exercise also helps improve cognition and can even slow down a steady decline for those who are already suffering from dementia.
If your diet is not full of B vitamins, you may be upping your chances. "B vitamin deficiencies are related to dementia — especially B1, B6 and B12," says Nzinga Harrison, M.D. "Eating a well-rounded diet and taking a multivitamin daily will reduce your risk for this type of dementia." You can find B vitamins in a variety of foods, like eggs, fortified grains, meat and legumes. She also notes that obesity is another risk factor, as is atherosclerosis. She explains, "The buildup of fats and other substances in the walls of your blood vessels can reduce blood flow to the brain, cause multiple mini-strokes and lead to vascular dementia."
While light alcohol use has been shown to possibly have positive cardiovascular benefits, drinking too much can have the opposite effect. "Heavy alcohol use is associated with increased risk for dementia (and many other physical and mental consequences as well)," says Dr. Harrison. She explains that for women, drinking three or more drinks in one day or more than seven in a week constitutes heavy drinking, and for men, that number is increased to five or more in a day or more than 15 in a week. So, if you do imbibe, aim for lower goals.
It has been found that those who have a vitamin D deficiency may have a greater chance of developing dementia. You can boost your vitamin D by just spending 10 minutes or so outdoors several days a week, without sunscreen, in the sunshine.
Some health conditions, if left untreated, can be bad for you in more ways than one. Both unmanaged diabetes and high cholesterol are dangerous to your immediate and long-term health. But, Dr. Harrison says that they can contribute to the development of dementia, including Alzheimer's.
Even though we may think that old age is far away, what we do now can and will affect us for the rest of our lives. And it's never too late to make a change for the better.
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