Smash dementia; no compromises on brain health
We know that the number of people suffering from dementia is increasing, trends of longevity and brain aging suggest that the total of people living with the condition globally is going to increase threefold to around 130 million by 2050. This shocking figure is of course simply an estimate, but the policy makers seem confident that this prediction is realistic. It’s important to acknowledge that dementia is in fact a syndrome of symptoms shared by a number of different conditions, for example Alzheimer’s dementia and vascular dementia. Not all forms of dementia are expected to see identical rates of growth in the general population.
Dementia is a useful catch all term, it describes severely reduced mental performance, but be wary of generalizations when it comes to brain health. Not all forms of dementia share the same causes, therefore prevention and treatment can also differ. A unifying factor in dementias is cognitive decline, so maintaining and strengthening brain structure and function, either directly or indirectly, is a common goal in the fight against dementia. Although we tend to think of a formal diagnosis as an important landmark in the dementia journey, brains are unique and to label a person as having dementia needs to understood in its relative context. Cognitive decline can ebb and flow throughout our life, it can begin in our late 20’s and our lifestyle can accelerate or slow decline in our mental performance, even in old age. There is an intermediate stage between ‘normal’ brain health and a formal diagnosis of dementia, Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI).
MCI affects up to 20% of people over 65 in the UK, its diagnosis is based on a reduction in mental performance greater that the expected ‘age related decline’, but not severe enough to be regarded as dementia. People diagnosed with MCI are more likely to develop dementia further down the road. However successful efforts to improve brain health inevitably reduces the risk of MCI as well as dementia. But as we have said, brain health is complex, some people don’t appear to experience further cognitive decline after an MCI diagnosis and occasionally there can be a measurable improvement in cognitive function. A key point to recognize is that throughout our lives the choices we make have a significant impact on our brain age and performance. To think of brain age as tied to our chronological age is neither scientific nor welcome, it draws society into generating the most unfortunate stereotypes about older people.
The human cost of dementia is incalculable, both to those individuals diagnosed as well as their family and friends. The economic implications also presents huge problems for society, it is estimated that the current annual cost of caring for each adult with dementia in the UK is £32,2501. The bill for dementia care is currently shouldered both by individuals and the state, the total costs are expected to increase dramatically over the next two decades. Dementia is one of the greatest challenges faced by society, evidence that lifestyle interventions are correlated with reduced risks offers important opportunities for both treatment and prevention.
Poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption are all considered to increase the risk of cognitive impairment. But perhaps brain training in the form of meditation offers the greatest potential for individuals to influence the rate of their cognitive decline. Appropriate meditation methods are able to create new function and structure in the human brain, leading to improved cognitive performance. Research has also indicated that regular meditators tend to have dementia unfriendly lifestyles when compared to the general population.
Dementia is responsible for significant suffering in society, every effort should be made to support those people currently living with the syndrome; and to bring prevention into the mainstream. Our motivation in coining the term ‘smash dementia’ is to be provocative, it is to draw attention to a life and death struggle that will engulf hundreds of millions of people over the next twenty years. The evidence is that lifestyle changes made by people in their 30s, 40s and 50s will significantly decrease their risk of developing dementia in later life. We know that regular meditation is a key weapon against cognitive decline. Combined with other lifestyle measures it is not inconceivable that the rates of dementia could decline in the future not increase. If people wanted to improve their brain health right away and reduce the risk of cognitive impairment here’s what they could do:
- Get motivated, the brain is the best friend you have in this matter, convince it to support your campaign.
- Find reliable a reliable meditation system, taught by a qualified and experienced teacher. Ask them how the meditation will affect your brain! Don’t underestimate the importance of this.
- All the evidence is that smoking gives no benefits to your brain health, it has to go.
- There’s an obvious correlation between body health and brain health, your brain is supported by your lungs and heart. Get as fit as you as you are reasonably able.
- Obesity should be challenged, take what steps you can to get close to your optimal weight.
- Check your diet, there is research linking physical and mental health to diet. In almost all cases, fresh fruit and vegetables are correlated with easy wins.
- Aside meditation take opportunities for brain training, do things that you have never done before, learn new skills.
- Remain socially engaged, do not withdraw into yourself.
- Take a compassionate outlook in life, by considering the needs and suffering of others as well as yourself your brain will get some benefits and make you feel a lot better about yourself.
- Pay attention to pollutants and toxins, reduce your exposure to substances (in the food, water and air) likely to be harmful to your health.
It seems unlikely that the risk of developing dementia can ever be reduced to zero but there is evidence that almost all of us should expect to experience reliable cognitive performance throughout our lives.
1 Data from the Alzheimer’s Society