Ways to prevent dementia start with the same healthy lifestyle that can improve your heart health

Perhaps the most effective way to prevent dementia is a healthy lifestyle that takes care of your heart. Get the details from Gregory E. Cooper, M.D., Ph.D.

Perhaps the most effective way to prevent dementia is a healthy lifestyle that takes care of your heart, according to a Norton Neuroscience Institute memory care specialist.

“We eat a lot of processed and fried foods in the South. We smoke more in the South. We exercise less in the South. So all of those things that lead to vascular disease also almost certainly increase our risk for dementia,” said Gregory E. Cooper, M.D., Ph.D., chief of adult neurology and director of the Norton Neuroscience Institute Memory Center.

A study published last year in JAMA concluded that obesity is the biggest risk factor for dementia that we can control. Obesity is linked to Type 2 diabetes, which in turn increases the risk of coronary artery disease, diabetic nephropathy (kidney disease), peripheral vascular disease, stroke and dementia, according a study published last year in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

Data presented to the 2021 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference forecast 6.8 million more dementia cases between 2019 and 2050 due specifically to smoking, high body mass index (BMI) and high blood sugar.

Ways to prevent dementia, or at least reduce the risk, include a Mediterranean diet or the related MIND diet. According to Dr. Cooper, being active — physically, mentally and socially — can decrease your risk for developing dementia. Improved sleep habits also can help.

“We don’t have all the proof we want, but there is building evidence that there are things that we can do that will meaningfully reduce our risk of dementia,” Dr. Cooper said. “I don’t know that I can point to one single factor. Just good general health. That probably would be the single most important thing in my mind. It is often said that what is good for the heart is good for the brain, and that’s really true.”

According to Dr. Cooper, education about ways to prevent dementia and eventual treatment can be very important.

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“We would like to stop the disease before it ever starts,” Dr. Cooper said.

But delaying, if not avoiding, dementia symptoms can be achieved by improving education about dementia among those who have a condition that could increase their risk.

“If I already have an illness, but I’m more educated, or my family members are more educated, that helps me manage the disease better and, in that sense, delays or prevents disability. So it doesn’t reverse the disease necessarily, but it helps me avoid or delay some of the problems down the road.”

Preparing for a ‘tsunami’ of dementia

The data presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference forecast global cases of dementia will triple by 2050, from an estimated 57.4 million in 2019 to 152.8 million in 2050 as the overall population ages.

“We’ve seen this coming for a long time, but it still causes me a lot of anxiety,” Dr. Cooper said. “We’re struggling to take care of the people with dementia already, and I’m worried that we’re not really prepared for the oncoming numbers. Some people have described it as an oncoming tsunami, and I think that’s true.”

It’s time to start preparing more effectively to diagnose, evaluate and care for these patients, according to Dr. Cooper.

The researchers also found more people are dying from Alzheimer’s.

From 1999 to 2019, the Alzheimer’s death rate increased from 16 to 30 deaths per 100,000 people, an 88% increase. In the United States, there’s a disparity in death rates between rural and urban areas. For example, in the East-South-Central region of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee, the death rate was 274 per 100,000 people 65 and over, more than three times the mid-Atlantic region.

“We need to do a better job of finding that health care from a patient standpoint and providing that health care from a clinician standpoint,” Dr. Cooper said.

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