How often do you floss?
There's a much-needed revolution going on in dementia research — and it's needed to untangle the causes of cognitive decline that affect more than 8 million Americans today, and will hit nearly 16 million by 2060. Alzheimer's disease accounts for 60-80% of dementia cases. Vascular dementia —linked to strokes and problems with blood flow to the brain — accounts for 10%. Lewy body dementia, fronto-temporal dementia and mixed dementia make up the remaining cases.
Possible Triggers of Cognitive Decline
While it's known that neurological changes, vascular disease, inflammation, proliferation of tau proteins and amyloid tangles (maybe) are culprits that cause dementia symptoms, research is revealing a whole roster of underlying triggers that may set you on the path to cognitive decline.
Sleep & Movement
Lousy sleep habits and sedentary living are a dangerous duo. While exercise loosens up amyloid proteins in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer's, good quality sleep is needed to dispose of them. In short, lack of physical activity and disturbed sleep are linked to the build-up of Alzheimer's-related proteins in the brain.
Diabetes seems to have a direct link to dementia. According to lab research published in Communications Biology, elevated blood sugar changes neural activity in the brain, impairing working memory in ways that are similar to what happens to neurons in Alzheimer's. One study from the Netherlands found that folks with type 2 diabetes had an 88% higher risk of dementia than those without the disease.
Your liver's health affects your brain health. A breakthrough lab study in PLOS BiologyPLOS Biology shows that some amyloid proteins are produced in the liver and travel to the brain — where they may make serious trouble.
Gum disease may be a major trigger for dementia, according to one study. It seems that mouth bacteria that thrive when gums are inflamed damage blood vessels that provide blood flow to the brain. Plus, a gum infection itself releases brain-damaging inflammatory chemicals.
Chronic exposure to fine-particulate-matter air pollution (compared to living in clean air) ups dementia risk by 92%, according to a study in Translational Psychiatry. Again, this may be from inflammation that's triggered.
Reducing Your Risk of Dementia
So how's the search for effective treatment going, and what can you do to reduce your risk? Some scientists are looking at using antibodies to stop proliferation of amyloid tangles. Others are focused on lifestyle changes (hey, floss your teeth daily!) that may offer substantial protection.
Research shows that if you have diabetes, keeping five to seven of the risk factors for dementia (smoking; elevated HbA1c levels, blood pressure, BMI, and albuminuria; lack of physical activity; and your diet) within guideline-recommended parameters reduces your risk for dementia to the same level as for folks without diabetes.
Vitamin B12 may also have a role in protecting you from Alzheimer's, according to a study (of worms!). That's why it's important to have your blood level tested as you age, and to eat foods that supply it (sardines, trout, tuna, and fortified cereals) and take supplements to boost your level. Ask your doc.
A healthy liver protects your brain. You can achieve that with a diet with very little saturated fat, no red or processed meats or added sugars, and lots of healthy fats in olive oil and salmon.
Weight loss is also protective. According to a study in Cardiovascular Diabetology, obesity changes fat in your arteries into inflammatory trouble-makers that promote atherosclerosis, a contributor to dementia.
De-stressing, cultivating happiness and social connections are brain-protective. One study indicated that when people are lonely, their risk of dementia rises by as much as 40%. So, make an effort to contact friends and volunteer to help others. Pursue a hobby. For depression, get talk and/or medical therapy, exercise daily. Take up meditation, yoga.
You have the tools to protect your brain as you age. Decide today to build a better future.