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“Dementia” is an umbrella term describing a variety of diseases and conditions that develop when neurons in the brain die or no longer function normally. The death or malfunction causes changes in one’s memory, behavior and ability to think clearly. The prevalence of dementia is expected to triple over the next 40 years as a growing percentage of the world ages.

The same lifestyle changes that reverse heart disease can also prevent AD and vascular dementia

New research, however, is beginning to reveal clues about risk factors that lifestyle choices can influence. A new study concludes that around 30-50% of AD cases are likely to be preventable because their causes are linked to risk factors that can be modifed.

The Most Common Type of Dementia

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common type of dementia. It accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases. According to the Alzheimer’s Association 2017 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures, more than 5 million Americans are currently living with AD. Someone in the United States develops AD every 66 seconds, and over 15 million Americans provide unpaid care for a person with AD or other dementias. AD is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.

The most common early symptoms include:

  • Difficulty remembering names and recent events.
  • Apathy and depression

Later symptoms include:

  • Impaired judgment.
  • disorientation.
  • confusion.
  • behavior changes.
  • difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking.

AD is ultimately fatal. There is no treatment currently available to slow or stop AD or other dementias. However, researchers around the world are studying dozens of treatment strategies that may have the potential to change the course of the disease.

Can Alzheimer’s be Prevented?

It’s only recently that doctors and researchers began thinking that AD and other dementias are preventable.  The prospect of delaying or preventing the onset of dementia symptoms has fueled an exciting new wave of investigations. Research is beginning to show that lifestyle choices and proper management of other health conditions can help keep dementia at bay.

Experts agree that the vast majority of cases of AD, like other common chronic conditions, develop as a result of complex interactions among multiple factors. These include age, genetics, environment, lifestyle, and coexisting medical conditions.

The focus of the new dementia research has shifted from identification of potential risk factors to using this information for developing interventions to prevent or delay the onset of dementia. As the evidence continues to show that a large percentage of AD may be preventable, the experts are saying that adopting a healthy lifestyle is an important step.

The Connection Between Brain and Heart Health

Some of the strongest evidence modifying risk factors for AD and other dementias comes from research that links brain health to heart health. The risk of developing AD or vascular dementia appears to increase with many conditions that damage the heart and blood vessels. These include:

  • Diabetes
  • Mid-life high blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Midlife obesity
  • Smoking
  • Physical inactivity
  • Poor diet
  • Stress
  • Lack of quality social interaction

Dr. Dean Ornish and his colleagues found that lifestyle changes that address the risk factors for heart disease can prevent, and even reverse, it. The same lifestyle changes that reverse heart disease can also prevent AD and vascular dementia.

For example, we know that physical exercise is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, coronary artery disease, type II diabetes mellitus, some types of cancers, and overall mortality. A 2011 study found that physical exercise decreased risk of dementia and Alzheimer disease.

We know that diet is a risk factor for heart disease, and now evidence links it to AD. A new USC study indicates that a diet high in cholesterol, fat and sugar may influence the development of Alzheimer’s disease in people who carry the ApoE4 gene. This gene is one of the leading genetic risk factors for the memory-erasing disease. Current evidence suggests that heart-healthy eating may also help protect the brain. Heart-healthy eating includes limiting sugar,saturated fats and eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Social isolation is another risk factor for heart disease and AD. A meta-analysis of 19 longitudinal studies found a connection between dementia and a lack of social interaction. The strength of the association between poor social interaction and dementia is comparable with other well-established risk factors for dementia.

The other risk factors for AD and dementia include:


A recent study by scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that people who experienced poor sleep in late midlife had brain characteristics that pointed to an increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a myth that adults need less sleep as they age. Getting an average of seven to eight hours of sleep a night is directly related to better brain and physical health in older people.

Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol dependence is a causal factor for dementia. Heavy drinking is associated with increased risk. Light to moderate consumption (up to two drinks per day), however, is associated with a reduced risk of all causes of dementia.

Cognitive inactivity or low educational attainment are also risk factors for AD and dementia.

Serious Head Injury

The Alzheimer’s Association warns that there may be a strong link between future risk of Alzheimer’s and serious head trauma, especially when injury involves loss of consciousness or when trauma occurs repeatedly.

9 Steps You Can Take to Ward Off Dementia

  1. Stay physically active. Walking, bicycling, gardening, tai chi, yoga and other exercise of about 30 minutes a day will provide a good blood flow to the brain and encourage new brain cell growth.
  2. Stick with a brain-healthy/heart-healthy diet. Limit the amount sugar and saturated fats you eat. Make sure to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  3. Stop smoking.
  4. Maintain a healthy weight.
  5. Stay socially active. Take a class at the local library or community college, volunteer, or just hang out with friends.
  6. Stay mentally active. Exercise your brain on a daily basis. Engage in mentally challenging work or other activities, like learning a foreign language, puzzles or games with friends.
  7. Get more quality sleep. Try for at least seven to eight hours a night. If you need help, free guided meditation apps are available on your smart phone, like “Insight Timer.”
  8. Limit alcohol consumption. If you drink alcohol, stick with no more than two drinks per day.
  9. Protect your head. Buckle your seat belt, wear your helmet when participating in sports, and “fall-proof” your home. Make sure floors are uncluttered, remove or tack down all scatter rugs, avoid using slippery wax on floors, and slip-proof the tub. Make sure the bath mat has a nonslip bottom and remove electrical or telephone cords from traffic areas.

Research suggests that combining good nutrition with mental, social and physical activities may have a greater benefit in maintaining or improving brain health than any single activity. A two-year clinical trial of older adults at risk for cognitive impairment showed that a combination of physical activity, nutritional guidance, cognitive training, social activities and management of heart health risk factors slowed cognitive decline.

Two thousand years ago, the Romans said “Mens sane in coprore sano.” The phrase means “a healthy mind in a healthy body.” Even today, it’s the perfect call to action for graduates of the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine program. By staying connected to your Ornish Alumni Communities, you will maintain a heart-healthy and brain-healthy lifestyle for many active years to come.

What are you doing to keep dementia at bay?

Contributed by

Bob Avenson
Senior Faculty - Group Support

Friendship is when people know all about you but like you anyway.

Better Health Begins With You...

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