One of the biggest lies you’ve ever been told is that dementia is hopeless. It’s not.
You can reduce your risk of getting it. And if you’ve already got it, there are actions you can take to slow the progression of your symptoms. Don’t believe me? Perfect. I love a challenge. The truth is, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are not magical diseases. In fact, research shows that we can influence our risk of getting dementia the same way that we influence our risk of getting diabetes, heart disease, cancer, or any other chronic, degenerative condition. The World Health Organization published dementia risk reduction guidelines for medical professionals and policymakers in 2019. In summary, these guidelines address are two main categories of risk factors for dementia: modifiable risks and nonmodifiable risks.
As the name implies, nonmodifiable risk factors are those that we, as individuals, have very little power over. This includes things like genetics, age, race/ethnicity, family history, and gender.
Modifiable risks, on the other hand, are more lifestyle-related and can be heavily influenced by personal choice. Of course, there are some forms of dementia - particularly younger-onset - that have a direct genetic cause, but these account for only about 10% of all dementia diagnoses.
Like other lifestyle diseases, 90% of dementia cases result from a combination of risks that we cannot control, plus ones that we can.
Lifestyle choices like tobacco use, physical inactivity, unhealthy diet, and harmful use of alcohol are all things that raise your risk for dementia…just like they raise your risk for all kinds of other diseases. Consider this: like dementia, your risk for getting diabetes or heart disease goes up or down based on things you choose to do or things choose not to do like food and exercise. If you're prediabetic or on the road to coronary artery disease, does your doctor just ignore this? Of course not. They're going to lecture you on eating right, exercising, managing your stress, drinking less alcohol, and taking your medication.
So why is it treated so differently – why doesn’t your doctor advise you on how to prevent or treat dementia in the same way they do for basically every single other disease? That’s a subject for another day but in short, it has a lot to do with two things: they don’t know any better and they are as blinded by stigma as everyone else.
But the concept is simple: everything you do good for your body, you do good for your brain.
Your body systems and organs don’t operate independently from one another. They all work together and when you’re doing something that harms your heart or your liver, that “something” is also harming your brain. This is because your brain is not some mysterious black box separated from the rest of your body. It’s all the same thing. When you have good nutrition, exercise regularly, maintain good cardiovascular health, sleep well and manage your stress effectively, you’re improving not only the health of your body but the health of your brain as well.
When you're socially isolated or depressed, your risk for dementia goes up. When you get head injuries - even in adolescence or midlife - your risk for dementia increases. Hormonal imbalances and nutritional deficiencies round out the WHO's list of modifiable risk factors. Even things that appear to have nothing to do with our brains - like weight lifting - make you more or less likely to get dementia. If you lose twenty pounds, you can see the difference in the way your body looks. If you start lifting weights, you can see your muscles getting bigger and feel yourself getting stronger. The results are quick, easy to see, and intensely gratifying. But beyond how much better you look and feel, there are changes going on in every organ and system of your body all the way down to the cellular level. Everything in your body starts working better - especially your brain.
Choices that you make today will affect your brain health for decades to come. The results of those choices may not be as immediately gratifying as a slimmer waistline or bigger muscles, but they are incredibly impactful.
Like most things, we don’t appreciate our brain health unless it’s threatened or taken away.
The concept is simple. Reducing your risk for dementia – or slowing the progression if you’ve already got it – is two-fold. To protect the health of your brain, increase your brain-protective functions, and two, decrease your risk factors.
Think back to when you were a kid and you had your first cavity. The dentist didn’t just tell you to brush your teeth better. They also told you to chew less bubblegum. It’s the same thing we brain health: it's not just about doing more things that are good for your brain. It's also about doing fewer things that are bad for it!
When it comes to healthy behaviors we all know it’s easier to add than it is to take away. It's like starting to run five miles a day but continuing to drink a bottle of wine every night: you might feel or look better, but you're poisoning yourself on the inside. Adding in the new "good" behavior makes you feel good about yourself but it's tougher to think about stopping drinking so much. It's scarier. It's harder. It feels like we are losing something.
No matter how much you want to tone your muscles or lose weight, your bad choices will keep effectively canceling out your good ones until you decide to break the habits, practices, and patterns that are holding you back.
Like all deep and lasting change, dementia risk reduction is about creating new habits, patterns, and practices. It is also about doing less of those things that don't support your goals.
In order to make real progress, start by taking an honest look at those choices, habits, patterns, and practices that don’t support your goals. Lifestyle choices - good and bad - don't exist in a vacuum.
That is why sheer willpower doesn’t work for most people in the long run. Your habits, practices, and patterns are rooted deeply in your childhood, your values, how you see the world, and how you see yourself. Real change happens when you dig into yourself: your roadblocks, beliefs, schemas, and patterns.
Real change requires you to get honest with yourself...and that's where I can help.
In just a couple of weeks, I will start offering a 30-day Brain Health Challenge. In it, you will learn 30 simple habits to help you learn to prioritize your brain health, working across all four systems of self: mind, body, heart, and spirit. This 30-day challenge is a quick, easy, and powerful way to begin reducing your risk of Alzheimer's and dementia.
Remember, Alzheimer's and dementia are not magical diseases. They are not hopeless. Just like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, or any other chronic and progressive condition, you can take control of your brain health and create the life that you want.