Currently 320,000 Australians have Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and these numbers are set to triple within the next 30 years. While confronting, these statistics don’t reveal the huge personal and family impacts of this devastating disease, nor the cost to the community through provision of health and dementia care services. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure.
I have seen this disease firsthand in my own family and have worked for over 29 years to help uncover the factors causing Alzheimer’s disease, as well as ways to delay its onset and slow its progression. We are all potentially at risk of Alzheimer’s disease as we age. But through attention to lifestyle and diet and exercise in particular, this risk can be lessened and quality of life improved.
Moderate exercise has been shown to help preserve memory. Even 30-40 minutes of brisk walking, three or four times a week, can make a difference, and increased intensity is likely to further enhance this benefit. Exercise, like sleep, is thought to play a major role in helping the brain get rid of toxic substances that kill brain cells. Whatever your age, it is never too late to start gentle exercise.
2. Healthy weight
Maintaining a healthy body weight and composition is also protective against the ravages of this disease. Increased abdominal fat has now been linked to a number of chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s. Paying attention to diet and exercise can assist this.
One of the keys here is reducing cholesterol and saturated fats, and Australian research has demonstrated the benefits of the so-called Mediterranean diet for this and general well-being. This type of diet is high in antioxidants with a focus on fresh foods, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, low-fat dairy, fruit, a moderate amount of lean meat and 2-3 serves of oily fish per week. Highly processed food, salt and saturated fats should be limited and regarded more as treats.
This diet also helps maintain an adequate consumption of certain important vitamins, particularly the B group – contained in lean meats and eggs, green leafy vegetables and whole grains.
4. Alcohol and smoking
Red wine contains a compound called resveratrol which may be have some health benefits – however, wine and alcohol should always be drunk in moderation. Smoking is to be avoided – it can undo the best efforts with diet and exercise as well as having its own intrinsic harms.
5. Social and mental stimulation
Social and mental stimulation also helps the brain. Staying active is important, whether this is through a social activity as simple as catching up with friends, helping out in the community, or even learning a new language. Activities that combine skills such as dancing (physical movement and concentrating on the music) seem to bring added benefits.