Fear over losing one’s memory is a very real and lurking concern, especially among older adults. But there is much we can do to not only ward off this fear but conquer it-and the possibility of dementia as well.
In a 2011 New York Times article entitled “Our Irrational Fear of Forgetting,” Margaret Morganroth Gullette noted that “Most forgetfulness is not Alzheimer’s, or dementia, or even necessarily a sign of cognitive impairment. And yet any prophecy about impaired cognition-whether it is fulfilled or not-harms people’s sense of self. They begin to be treated like children, patronized with baby talk or avoided.”
No one wants to experience this scenario. So what can each of us do, today, to try and avoid dementia, even if we are decades younger than when people typically begin to worry about it (which is the fifth decade)?
New research on avoiding dementia
According to the findings from a recent study, which appeared in the Centre of Excellence in Population Aging and is entitled “A rapidly aging Australia: cognitive aging and decline trends,” one of the most important things you can do to avoid dementia is to challenge yourself. That is, engage in activities you don’t do well or even know how to do at all.
The article went on to mention the several lifestyle factors or practices that can place individuals at risk of developing dementia. They include, in diminishing order: physical inactivity, midlife obesity, low education attainment, midlife hypertension, depression, smoking, and diabetes.
Let’s return to the idea of trying things you don’t do well. For example, if the only language you know is English, enroll in a Spanish or French class. If you can do the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink, then try anagrams. If you excel at the piano, then pick up a saxophone. Professor Kaarin Anstey, the study’s lead author, pointed out that “You need to invest in your brain over the course of your life so you have a nice healthy brain when you’re old.”
Simply reading every day, doing jigsaw or crossword puzzles, or playing checkers is not enough. Although these activities can be mentally demanding, they typically don’t require new learning opportunities. There needs to be active learning taking place, an opportunity for your neurons and synapses to be fully engaged, for meaningful dementia-prevention to take place.
Other ways to avoid dementia
In addition to challenging your brain by learning something new, there are other ways to help you avoid dementia.
- For women, living with someone, being married, and volunteering seem to make them more likely to avoid memory loss.
- For men and women, having lots of friends and socializing a great deal are both important.
- Regular physical exercise is critical, including aerobic exercise and lifting weights, both of which send oxygen to the brain, help fight high cholesterol and hypertension, and keep the heart strong.
- Keep alcohol intake to a minimum, which means one drink daily for women and two for men.
- Practice meditation, as it’s been shown to enhance cognition, reduce stress, and lessen dementia symptoms.
- Get sufficient sleep, because a lack of sleep has been linked to higher levels of stress and cortisol, both of which are risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. The system that helps eliminate beta-amyloid plaque from the brain also is more active when you sleep. Strive to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night.
Alzheimer’s.net. 15 resolutions to reduce your dementia risk in 2015. 2015 Jan 1
Mannix L. Here’s the best science on how you can avoid dementia. The Sydney Morning Herald. 2018 Apr 10
Russell-Williams J et al. Mindfulness and meditation: treating cognitive impairment and reducing stress in dementia. Reviews in the Neurosciences 2018 Feb 21