GROW: Reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s, diabetes, hypertension

Dr. William Grow

Recent scientific studies show we have more control over our brain health than commonly believed. 

You must live a healthier lifestyle. Recently, a highly respected medical journal reported that 35% of dementia cases might be prevented if people exercise and keep their brain stimulated through brain-stimulating activities such as games like crossword puzzles; hobbies like gardening and reading; and social activities with civic and spiritual organizations.

The Lancet Study identified several factors increasing dementia risk, which you can control, including midlife obesity, physical inactivity, untreated hypertension, uncontrolled diabetes, social isolation, and low education levels. Of course, there are no guarantees. 

Dementia is a complex disease with multiple causes but Alzheimer’s patients, which represent 60% of all cases, can definitely decrease that risk by adopting lifestyle changes. It’s about a package of behaviors including aerobic exercise (jogging, walking), strength training, a healthy diet, sleep and mind stimulation. 

The best time to focus on prevention is long before symptoms occur, ideally by midlife. Still, it is never too late to start.

Scientific studies show us possible ways to reduce dementia risk:

Blood Pressure, Blood Sugar Control

Dementia rates have recently had a 44% decline among people greater than 60. Improvement in heart and blood vessel health and education levels help explain this trend. 

At the same time, stroke and heart disease rates have improved. All of this is in great part related to greater use of blood pressure medication and control of high blood pressure though diet, weight loss, exercise and salt restriction, lowering the top value to less than 130 ideally. 

A medical study at Wake Forest involved 9,500 patients and was the first to demonstrate an effective strategy for helping prevent dementia. Diabetes blood sugar control also lessens the risk, again through the use of diet, exercise, weight loss and possibly medication. This has just been confirmed by a study on several thousand patients at Mayo Clinic.

Exercise

Several studies have shown that physically active people are less likely to develop dementia. 

Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and raises HDL (good) cholesterol, and helps protect brain cells from dying, improving insulin sensitivity and helps to maintain weight. Laura Baker, professor at Wake Forest School of Medicine, suggests that aerobic exercise can help improve brain thinking function with mild deficits.

Brain Thinking Training

A recent study in patients over 65 found that people who engage in more than six activities a month, including hobbies, visiting friends, walking, volunteering and attending religious services, had a 38% lower rate of dementia than those who had less activity.

Diet

Several studies recently have shown that people who follow healthy diets high in fish, fruit, nuts and vegetables have lower rates of dementia. Diets heavy in leafy greens and other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olives and wine (in moderation) reduce risk of dementia. 

These diets were low in red meat, butter, cheese, sweets and fried and fast foods. This diet has been named the MIND diet. In one study, there was a 50% reduction among those who closely followed this diet. The MIND diet, a hybrid of the DASH, Mediterranean and diabetes diets, has components to control blood sugar.

Sleep

Sound sleep reduces the risk of dementia. Theories suggest that sleep “washes toxic substances” that are accumulated while awake. Ideal sleep time is seven hours in a 24-hour day.

Combination

The healthier your habits, the lower the risk. In a recent study, nonsmokers on a MIND diet who exercised, engaged in thinking games and activities and moderate alcohol consumption had 60% fewer cases of dementia over six years, even in those of greater risks.

In conclusion, helping prevent dementia, hypertension and diabetes may be as simple as following mommy’s advice:

– Get off the couch.

– Go play with your friends.

– Eat your vegetables.

(Attribute: Ms. Shell, WSD, Nov. 18, 2019; Laura Baker, PhD, Wake Forest Medical School)

Dr. William R. Grow, MD, FACP is district health director, South Health District.

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