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What causes dementia?

Over 100 different diseases can cause dementia. Here’s how to minimise your own risk.

Senior Woman And Senior Man Sitting On The Sofa

There’s a lot we still don’t know about dementia, but we do know it affects more than 430,000 Australians and is the leading cause of disability in over 65s. And it might surprise you to know that It’s also the second most common cause of death of Australians in general, behind heart disease.

So it begs the question: is there anyway we can avoid dementia? Read on to find out.

What is dementia?

Dementia is not actually a ‘disease’ in itself. The term dementia describes a group of symptoms caused by a range of different illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease, which is responsible for the majority of dementia cases.

These illnesses affect the brain, reducing your ability to function normally and go about your everyday life. Symptoms include:

  • Memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Personality changes
  • Changes to a person’s usual behaviour
  • Loss of mental ability
  • Loss of social skills

While medication can help with some of the symptoms there is currently no cure. Without a major medical advance the number of people with dementia is expected to continue to rise in line with Australia’s aging population.

How do you get dementia?

There are said to be more than 100 different diseases that can cause dementia. Common types include:

Alzheimer’s disease: More than two-thirds of people with dementia suffer from Alzheimer’s. It’s a disease of the brain where certain chemical changes cause damage to brain cells and can ultimately cause dementia.

Vascular dementia: This type of dementia is related to problems with circulation of blood to the brain. It’s usually due to a blockage in the small blood vessels where plaque has built up or blood clots have broken loose, or after a stroke or series of strokes.

Lewy body disease: Similar to Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy body disease relates to the break down of nerve cells in the brain. Lewy bodies are unusual round particles of accumulated protein that form within brain cells and contribute to degenerating and killing the cells off.  

Alcohol-related dementia: One of the many potential effects of drinking too much alcohol is irreversible brain damage, and dementia symptoms can develop as a result.

How to prevent dementia

It’s never too early to take the right steps towards a healthy lifestyle and a healthy brain, and it’s particularly important when changes start to occur in the brain around middle age.

Here’s a checklist of healthy habits to help:

1. Be heart smart

Heart and brain health are closely linked. Problems with your heart and blood vessels can increase your chances of developing dementia, so it’s important to keep your blood pressure and cholesterol levels in a healthy range. Regular check-ups with your GP can help you detect any issues as early as possible.

2. Exercise your body

Getting physical increases blood flow to the brain, stimulating brain cells and reducing the risk of dementia. Any exercise is better than none, so start with regular walks, find a workout buddy to help spur you on, or make a list of activities you’ve always wanted to try and challenge yourself to tick them off.

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3. Exercise your mind

Your brain loves processing new information. By challenging your brain with frequent and complex tasks, you may be less likely to develop dementia. Activities like reading, playing cards or doing puzzles, learning a language or instrument or even extra study can help keep your brain powered up and thriving.

4. Make diet a priority

Fuel your body with the best foods for a healthy brain, including a variety of fruits and vegetables, lean red meat and chicken, low-fat dairy products, fish and other foods rich in omega-3 fats. Avoid the obvious, like deep fried foods and sweet treats.

MORE: Fruit: How much should you actually eat?

5. Get social

We’re talking about good old-fashioned human interaction here. Regular social contact with friends, family and your community can help lower your risk of dementia. If you can mix that in with exercise, like yoga or team sport, or a brain-stimulating activity, even better!

6. Moderate and quit

Alcohol and smoking are both risk factors for dementia. If you enjoy a tipple it’s best to do so in moderation and smoking should be completely off the table.

7. Deal with depression

Depression has also been linked to dementia, so there’s another important reason to see your GP and seek treatment if you’re experiencing any signs of depression.

There are many important reasons to look after the health of your brain and your body, and reducing your risk of dementia is just one of them. Even if you’re still young and healthy, how you care for your body now can set you up for living well now, and later in life.

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