Is There a Way to Prevent Dementia in Older Adults?
As your relatives get older, you may become concerned about the onset of cognitive decline. Dementia affects millions of people, and while there's still much we don't understand about it, we do know there are some strategies that can prevent or reduce its effects.
Dementia: The Basics
Dementia is a general term, rather than designating a specific disease; it describes significant ongoing cognitive decline, including impairments to memory, thinking, and decision making in a way that interferes with everyday activities. Most older adults do experience some cognitive impairments as they get older, such as trouble remembering things or slower thought processes, but dementia is not considered to be part of “normal” aging.
It's also important to note that there's no such thing as a surefire method for preventing dementia. There seems to be a genetic component to many forms of dementia, and environmental factors play a role throughout a person's life, so there's a limited impact to your intervention.
That said, if you can delay the onset of dementia by even a few years or reduce the intensity of symptoms slightly, it's usually worth the effort.
Fighting Back Against Dementia
These are some of the best ways to fight back against dementia.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Evidence suggests that people who eat a healthy, balanced diet throughout their life are less likely to experience dementia as they get older. There are a few different possible explanations for this, including a link between obesity and the onset of dementia. In any case, eating healthier is associated with so many positive physical and mental health benefits that there's no reason not to pursue it. Focus on eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and complex carbohydrates, while cutting back on junk foods.
- Get physical exercise every day. Physical exercise provides both physical and mental stimulation, especially if you're exercising outside. The older adult in your life may not be physically capable of working out at the gym every day, but they should be in decent enough shape for a walk around the block. Exercising regularly can help them stay in shape, keep them mentally sharp, and minimize some dementia symptoms.
- Stay connected with friends and family members. People are less likely to experience dementia when they are actively connected with friends and family members, since socializing is so important to a person's wellbeing. DailyCaring’s gift idea list for senior men recommends many items that can help with this. For example, you can gift the senior in your life a “smart” picture frame with uploaded digital photos of family members. You could also give them a device that allows them to regularly talk to the people they love most.
- Stop smoking (and drinking). Excessive alcohol consumption and tobacco use are both independently associated with the premature onset of dementia and worse dementia symptoms. Ideally, the older adult in your life will quit smoking as soon as possible. They should also minimize their alcohol consumption, drinking only in small amounts and only occasionally, if they choose to drink at all.
- Prevent head injuries. Studies show that people who experience head trauma at any stage of life are more likely to develop dementia later in life. This is one reason why athletes in contact sports like American football and boxing often suffer from cognitive impairment as they get older. You can't go back in time and erase a head injury from happening, but you can make a concentrated effort to reduce head injuries in the future.
- Protect hearing. It's natural for a person's hearing to decline in sharpness with age, but it's important to stave off this development for as long as possible and use hearing aids when appropriate. Improving and protecting a person's hearing keeps them engaged in conversation and allows them to experience the world more naturally. Together, these effects have the ability to help an older adult remain cognitively stimulated and prevent their mental decline.
- Get plenty of sleep. We know that chronic sleep deprivation is a significant risk factor for developing dementia. There are a few possible explanations for this, including the possibility that sleep plays a role in clearing the brain of amyloid plaque, which can lead to Alzheimer's disease. In any case, it's important for the older adults in your life to get as much sleep as possible, aiming for 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night.
The Importance of Ongoing Monitoring
Note that even with these strategies in place, it's important to practice ongoing monitoring for signs of cognitive decline in the people you care about. Dementia may develop slowly or rapidly, but in either case, the initial symptoms may be hard to notice.
Keep an eye on the people you love, and if you notice any aberrant behaviors, make sure you bring them up at their next medical appointment or with their primary caregiver.