By Dr. Loreen Dawson, BSc, ND
Conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia, arise slowly, over years to decades when many factors act together to affect the brain, resulting in problems with memory and thinking. Developing excellent habits, including an optimal diet, regular exercise, and active learning go a long way in reducing your risk of developing dementia, but, there are many other things which must also be considered. Sleep, stress, hormones and gum disease are other factors which affect dementia risk.
Poor sleep increases your risk of dementia. Good quality, adequate sleep is needed for the brain and memory to operate effectively. Simply taking sleeping pills however is not the best solution. Studies indicate that some prescription sleep aides likely contribute to dementia development. Addressing the underlying causes of sleep disturbance, and correcting them is critical. Consider your sleeping environment, stress management techniques, diet, exercise and daily habits and optimize each in order to improve sleep. Treat sleep apnea if this is a factor. If all of these have been addressed, and you still need support, there are dozens of safe sleep aids which can be considered and ideally matched to your individual needs.
Stress is risk factor for dementia. Although we often can’t control the stressful family, community or world events which happen around us, we can control how we respond to them. Meditation is an example of a well-studied stress reduction technique. Having a long term meditation practice likely reduces dementia risk, and, meditation was found to be very helpful at reducing stress in family members caring for loved ones with dementia.
Hormonal decline of both estrogen in women, and testosterone in men, corresponds with rising dementia risk. It would seem that prescribing hormones would be beneficial, but the results are unclear. Supplementing testosterone in men had not been well studied as a dementia prevention or treatment strategy. Prescribing estrogen for women has mixed results. When used later in life, it appears to increase risk. However, when started closer to menopause, there seems to be a benefit. Research is underway to see if using bioidentical forms of estrogen, even later in life, may be beneficial.
Several types of chronic infections are known to be risk factors in dementia. Gum disease is one example, and it can be treated very effectively with a combination of good diet, dental hygiene and regular visits with the dental hygienist.
Dementia is one of the most common neurological problems affecting adults. There are dozens of well-known risk factors, most of which are changeable. Awareness of all your risks, and a willingness to work at decreasing or eliminating the changeable risks will go a long way to keeping your brain functioning as well as possible for the rest of your life.