How To Prevent Dementia: Is It Even Possible?
By Nadia Khan
Updated December 21, 2018
Reviewer Prudence Hatchett, LPC, NCC, BC-TMH
Dementia can make life extremely difficult, even unbearable for some. In fact, dementia is a condition that ultimately leads to death if its progression can't be reversed. Preventing dementia is not only important now, with the aging population, but it is crucial to later generations who will likely live even longer.
So, are there any real answers to how to avoid dementia? If we can't prevent it completely, can we delay its onset and progression? Scientists don't know everything yet but understanding the research can give us clues about what might help.
Know Your Risk Of Dementia
The first thing you need to investigate is your own risk of developing dementia. Some people simply have more risk factors than others. When you're more informed about the risks, you may feel greater motivation to do what you can to prevent dementia.
There are certain kinds of risks you can't avoid. One thing you can't and probably don't want to avoid is growing older. As you get older, your risk of dementia increases.
Genetic factors may play a role. For example, APO-e4, APO-e2, and APO-e3 are genes that increase your risk of Alzheimer's dementia. Other genes that may be involved include APP, PS-1, and PS-2.
Researchers are looking for a multi-gene risk factor for vascular dementia, but so far, no single gene has been found for common vascular dementia. People who have familial vascular dementia may have mutations in the NOTCH3 gene. A family history of stroke or heart attack may increase your risk of vascular dementia.
A mutation in one of eight specific genes may cause frontotemporal dementia. If you have a strong family history of frontotemporal dementia, you may have mutations in the C9ORF72 gene, the MAPT gene, and the GRN gene, adding to your risk. Almost everyone who has these specific gene mutations gets frontotemporal dementia.
Little is known about the genetics of dementia with Lewy bodies. It rarely runs in families, but variations in the genes APOE e-4, GBA, and SNCA may increase your risk.
The more people in your family who have had dementia, the more risk you have of developing it yourself. This is partly due to genetic factors, but it also has to do with shared environmental factors that cause additional risks.
Change What You Can
You may start out with risk factors you can't eliminate, but you still have the power to make changes that can lessen your risk of developing dementia. The following risk factors are often avoidable:
- Head injuries
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
Your dementia risk is also reduced when you do the following:
- Eat a healthy diet
- Stay mentally active
- Avoid drinking too much alcohol
- Avoid tobacco use
- Be socially active
Are There Drugs That Prevent Dementia?
No magic pill, powder, or beverage will guarantee you never have dementia. There may be some drugs that can decrease your risk, delay your symptoms, or improve your prognosis. Studies are still being done, even on standard dementia drugs like Aricept and Namenda. That's why it's important to keep up with the research as it progresses.
What Is A Drug?
Before delving into the many substances that may affect whether and when you get dementia, you need to know more information about the drug. Simply put, any substance you put into your body is a drug and it may have a physiological effect. These substances include prescription medications, OTC meds, dietary supplements, natural medicines, and even medical food.
Prescription Drugs Now In Use
The drugs used to delay and lessen symptoms of dementia include those that affect areas of the brain where memories are created, and cognitive functions take place were used first for Alzheimer's but have since been used for other dementias. These include Aricept, Razadyne, Exelon, and Namenda. Namzaric, a combination of Namenda and Aricept, has shown better results than either of them alone.
These medications don't prevent or reverse dementia. However, they can delay symptoms. Other medications used to treat dementia after it happens help with symptoms of depression, behavior problems, sleeping problems and others.
If you have a medical condition listed above as a risk factor, your doctor may prescribe you medications to treat that condition. By taking those needed medications along with following a healthy lifestyle, you can reduce your risk of developing dementia.
Do Vitamin Supplements Help?
Supplements cover a lot of ground. Vitamin supplements and dietary supplements are always popular. The question is, do they help with dementia? For the most part, they play little or no role in preventing or delaying dementia. However, there are a few exceptions.
If you have a vitamin deficiency, you may need to take a vitamin supplement. B-12 can be especially important in preventing a specific type of reversible dementia. Although dementia can be reversed for people with B-12 deficiencies, the brain damage may already be done. To avoid that problem, it's important to talk to your doctor to find out if you need B-12.
Vitamin D, especially D3, is currently being studied as support for cardiovascular health. If so, Vitamin D might help you prevent vascular dementia by protecting your heart. Other vitamins that are necessary for good brain health are C, Folic acid, B6, Niacin, Niacinamide, B1, and E. However; you don't need large doses of these. Instead, it's best to get them through your diet and only supplement enough to overcome any deficiencies.
What About Dietary Supplements?
If you go online or watch commercial TV, you'll eventually run across dietary supplements that make impressive-sounding claims to convince you that they will prevent dementia and other conditions. These products sometimes have vitamins, minerals, and possibly some natural medicines. They may also have harmful chemicals, failed prescription drugs, or natural medicines that work against medications you're already taking.
Dietary supplements aren't tested or reviewed by the FDA unless a problem happens first. You have no guarantee that the dosage they list is actually what's in it. You may not have any more to go on. Also, many of these dietary supplements are expensive without offering any real benefits.
If you want to take a dietary supplement to help you avoid dementia, you need to do two things. First, you need to have the complete ingredient list, including amounts of each ingredient. Second, it's crucial that you take your list with you to talk to your doctor before you take it. These supplements rarely have much in them that's beneficial, and they often have substances that are harmful or even dangerous.
Natural Medicine To Prevent Dementia
As the years go on, natural medicine is becoming more popular. One thing you need to remember about herbals is that they can be as powerful as prescription drugs. If they produce a harmful effect, it might be extremely serious. They can cause dangerous interactions with medications you may already be taking. So, it's very important to discuss all natural and herbal remedies with your doctor before you begin taking them.
The following are some of the substances that are or are referred to as natural that have been claimed to prevent dementia:
- Gingko Biloba: Does not help with dementia and may cause interference with blood thinners
- Huperzine/Chinese club moss: Not a natural medicine, but a drug that's being investigated in studies. Might help reduce the risk of dementia, but can interact with medications, especially drugs like Aricept.
- DMAE: Often falsely touted as a natural cure, this drug was tested as a prescription drug and failed. It's now used primarily in the plastics industry.
- Garlic: High doses may help reduce cardiovascular risk and thus reduce vascular dementia risk. Take in purified form.
- CoQ10: This vitamin-like substance is found in each cell in your body. As a supplement, it's used in high doses and may have some benefits. Research on 1200-1500mg doses is ongoing. However, taking that much CoQ10 would be extremely costly.
- John's Wort: May help with the depression associated with dementia but can cause kidney problems and interfere with medications processed in the liver.
- Coconut oil: Marketed for preventing dementia by helping your brain use ketones for brain energy. Most experts do not recommend this.
- Resveratrol: Found in red wine, Resveratrol has been marketed as the latest youth serum. While it may improve cognitive function, you would have to drink over six and a half gallons of red wine per day to get the benefit from it.
Training Your Brain
If there's no magic potion to give you an eternally youthful brain, what can you do? You have two wonderful options, and you'll benefit from taking both together for dementia prevention. One is to live a healthy lifestyle, and the other is to exercise your cognitive abilities in the most effective ways possible. This exercise has lately been called brain training.
What Is Cognitive Reserve?
The goal of brain training is to build your cognitive reserve. What is a cognitive reserve? You can use your mind to work around brain injuries.
One study followed a group of 678 nuns who lived in similar environments and engaged in similar activities. These nuns didn't have symptoms of dementia, although most lived to be very old, even as old as 104 years old! After each died, the autopsies revealed that many had the kind of brain damage that is seen in patients with severe dementia.
What made these nuns special was that they had built up an amazing cognitive reserve. Some of the life factors for these nuns were early linguistic abilities, engaging social life, intellectual activities and reaching higher levels of education.
When memory problems and other dementia symptoms threatened to diminish the nun's daily functioning, they quickly developed different ways to do the things they needed to do. Rather than giving in to cognitive decline, their brains worked around it to develop new neural pathways to get the same jobs done.
If you can build a more cognitive reserve, you may show few or no symptoms of dementia even if your brain shows drastic dementia-like changes. Whether this is possible is still under investigation. Cognitive training is one possible way to do this.
As profitmaking companies sell it as well as studied and developed by researchers at universities and other nonprofit foundations, cognitive training is an interesting field. Sometimes, for-profit companies and nonprofits work together.
Software programs are the most common cognitive training tools. These are similar to simple video games, but they're designed especially for cognitive engagement. The best of these seem to be useful in improving cognitive functioning, and early results are promising. However, more research is needed.
The best cognitive exercise is something intellectual you enjoy. If you enjoy the cognitive training computer games, they could be even more helpful. Also, the following cognitive leisure activities might help:
- Playing cards
- Doing puzzles
Lifestyle Changes For Preventing Dementia
Improving your lifestyle is perhaps the most important of the manageable risks of getting dementia. These are things you can do on your own, although your doctor may provide you with information and instructions and help you set goals. You can do any of these things without spending any extra money, yet, they can have a profound impact on your cognitive health.
The Role Of Physical Exercise
Exercise has been shown to slow cognitive decline. You don't have to bulk up at the gym. All you need to get in some good, brisk walking regularly. Being active improves the functioning of your hippocampus, where new memories are formed. It may have additional benefits, such as increasing the white matter in your brain. Exercise also improves your mood, decreases stress, and even enhances the action of your neurons.
Obesity and other health problems that go along with it tend to increase symptoms and speed up the onset of dementia. Problems such as diabetes and heart disease, etc. can increase your risk factors for dementia. If you want better results, you can exercise more if you don't put too much stress on your body.
Eat A Healthy Diet
Eating a healthy diet is another major factor in maintaining healthy body weight. It's more than that, too. It's the very best way to get vitamins and minerals because they're more easily absorbed than they are if you take them in pill form. It's the best way to get your antioxidants because these are complex substances that are hard to capture in supplements completely.
Smoking is bad for your lungs, of course. Everyone knows that. What you might not know is that tobacco use causes damage to the cerebral cortex of the brain. Researchers don't yet know whether this is a direct result of smoking or it's an indirect result after the lungs lose some of their ability to take in oxygen that's needed in the brain.
Don't Drink Too Much Alcohol
Moderate drinking may be good for your heart and help you avoid a heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases. People who drink moderately also have a lower risk of diabetes. Besides these obvious health benefits, it may be a part of an active social life, which is one of the ingredients of good brain health.
However, drinking too much, and your brain will begin to atrophy. The more you drink, the more your brain shrinks. So, how much should you drink? The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that men who drink up to 4 drinks per day or 14 drinks per week are moderate drinkers, while women who drink up to 3 drinks per day or 14 drinks per week are moderate drinkers. However, these statistics are geared to identifying alcohol abuse. More research is needed to find out the exact upper limits for good brain health.
Keep Up With Preventative Health Care
Preventative health care can help you avoid all those medical conditions like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, etc. that are major preventable risk factors for dementia. If your doctor does diagnose you with one of these medical conditions, it's important to follow their directions by taking any prescribed medications and following lifestyle recommendations to minimize the effects and decrease the severity of the condition.
Be Proactive About Your Mental Health
Your mental health is a crucial element in keeping your brain healthy. Stress can play a large role in many of the conditions that are risk factors for dementia. Depression can change your brain, and it can also keep you from making good lifestyle choices. By getting help with your mental and emotional problems, you can empower yourself to take charge of your cognitive health now and in the years to come.
Getting help with your mental health issues is a very easy process when you go to BetterHelp.com. There, you can connect with a licensed counselor online and benefit from therapy when and where works best for you. You can explore all your risk factors for developing dementia and learn how to reduce or eliminate those risks. You can take the first step to improving your chances of a long, cognitively healthy life. When you do, you can develop the skills and mindset to live the best possible life now and in the future.