Does Age Matter? A Look at Diet, Lifestyle, and Dementia

by Kay Jennings, BSN, MHSA, MSN, PHMNP-BC, DPSc
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and impacts the lives of millions of Americans and is a tremendous burden on our health care system.  What if there were things that we could each do to avoid or delay the onset of this disease?  Well, the latest research indicates there are many things that one can do, starting 20 years prior to when this disease would typically present.

Age is a factor in the risk of getting Alzheimer’s and the percentage of people suffering from the disease doubles every 5 years after age 65.  People with parents or siblings who have the disease are at a higher risk and the hereditary factor is higher in early-onset (before age 65) Alzheimer’s.

So what can one do to change the expression of genes, avoid the disease, or delay the onset?  Researchers are finding that there are many things that impact this disease.

photo-1459800076366-76c011b33373 UNSPLASHOne of the simplest interventions is food.  Researchers from Chicago Rush University Medical Center have found that people who followed a MIND diet that they developed are less likely to become afflicted.  The diet is much like the Mediterranean diet and the anti-hypertension diet DASH.  Both encourage people to consume greens, berries, whole grains, nuts, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine.

Obesity can lead to accelerated cognitive decline and dementia.  Obese people have central obesity with increased blood sugar and triglycerides in the blood, increased blood pressure and low levels of good HDL.  The fat cells that make up central obesity are very inflammatory and increase inflammation in the brain.  Brain inflammation is associated with reduced brain volume and a greater risk of cognitive decline.  Lifestyle intervention including diet is mandatory to lose weight and lower one’s risk of cognitive decline.

Inflammation is one of the leading causes of chronic diseases. A recent study on extreme longevity concluded that having very low levels of inflammation in your body is the most potent predictor of living beyond 100 years of age.  Chronic inflammation can go on for years without you noticing until disease suddenly sets in.  A simple lab test, C-Reactive Protein (CRP), can measure inflammation in your body.  Or a fasting insulin level can be looked at for a marker of inflammation.  If you are inflamed, diet and exercise are the primary ways to combat inflammation.

The Western Style diet is full of processed refined, high fat and glucose foods.  To effect change in how we age, we must change our diet.  Eat real food!  One does not need a PhD in nutrition to get it right.  Shop the perimeter of the store.  Avoid processed vegetable oils and sugars.  Use high quality unprocessed fats such as olive oil and coconut oil.

Exercise research confirms that a life style that includes exercise also helps avoid or delay cognitive decline. Focused exercise should consist of intervals designed for one’s level and high intensity resistance/strength training of all major muscles groups 3 times per week.  Motion should be incorporated into each day.

Other suggestions to improve brain health and avoid cognitive decline are:  socialization, brain games “neurobics”, yoga, meditation, rest and recovery.  And on a final note, learn to laugh and play with friends and family.  Age is not nearly as important as the life style we choose to live.