Reducing your risk of dementia: What the research tells us
A collaboration between the CIHR Institute of Aging, Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging, and the Alzheimer Society of Canada

October 1, 2018

It’s common for a person’s memory to slip as they get older – occasionally forgetting dates, names, or having trouble finding words. But when memory loss is more serious and starts interfering with daily life, that person may be on the path towards developing dementia. Not only does dementia affect memory, it also affects mood and personality.

A number of brain conditions are linked to dementia. The most common of which is Alzheimer’s disease.

More than 400,000 Canadians, aged 65 and over, are living with dementia. Two-thirds are women. Although the precise cause of dementia is unknown, age is the primary risk factor – and the risk of developing dementia increases with age.

Dementia is generally a slow-developing disease. That’s why early diagnosis and intervention is important, including knowing what you can do to prevent dementia or slow its progression.

“What’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” says Dr. Yves Joanette, Scientific Director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s (CIHR) Institute of Aging.

In other words, eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise are both preventive strategies. In the case of dementia, it also means building cognitive resilience, or strengthening the parts of your brain related to memory, thinking, and problem solving.

But what should you eat, specifically? What type of exercise is best? And what brain boosting activities should you engage in?

Researchers within the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging (CCNA) are finding answers to these questions. The CCNA is a national research platform funded by CIHR, the Alzheimer Society of Canada, and partners in the public and private sectors. The CCNA brings together more than 350 dementia researchers from across the country working in 20 teams to accelerate progress towards understanding, prevention, and treatment of dementia. 

Brain healthy diet

CCNA researchers have shown that simple dietary changes can have a powerful impact on the brain. In a study involving adults, aged 50 and over who consumed a healthy diet for four months, researchers found that participants performed as if they were nine years younger in speed-reading and writing tests.

Participants ate mainly fish, nuts, fruits and vegetables, including berries and raw leafy greens, while limiting red meats, pre-packaged food, and sweets. This dietary pattern is associated with a 36 percent lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and 27 percent lower risk of mild cognitive impairment.

These diet recommendations are included in the CCNA’s Brain Health Food Guide.

Boost brain health with exercise

A couch potato lifestyle isn’t good for the waistline or the brain.

Researchers have found that walking is controlled by the same parts of the brain responsible for problem solving. Accordingly, changes in a person’s mobility or walking ability may serve as an indicator of the progression from a state of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) to dementia. This also suggests that walking, or other forms of physical activity, may help prevent or slow the progression of dementia.

CCNA researchers are carrying out a clinical trial that will examine the effect of aerobic and strength exercise, combined with cognitive training and vitamin D supplements, on the progression of dementia. If these interventions show promising results in improving cognition, they may serve as an effective treatment to delay progression from MCI to dementia and may be introduced more broadly in healthcare treatments. 

Building cognitive resilience through meaningful activity

Can you build resistance to dementia? Evidence suggests that people who have engaged in intellectually stimulating activities throughout their lives may have built a cognitive reserve that protects them from dementia.

To that end, CCNA researchers have developed a unique training program that applies academic cognitive training to engaging leisure activities. The activities include learning to play a musical instrument, learning a foreign language, watching documentaries, and playing educational video games.

Diet. Exercise. Brain training. These are some of the strategies that may not only help you prevent dementia, they may also help you prevent other chronic diseases and put you on the path towards healthy aging.

For more information on dementia research, living with dementia, and other resources, we invite you to consult these websites:

This article is a collaboration between the CIHR Institute of Aging, Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging, and the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

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