More than one in 10 North Americans wil suffer from dementia. Today there is no effective treatment for dementia, but in the last month, several reports have shown that dementia may be delayed and prevented by:
• exercising your brain,
• exercising your muscles regularly,
• avoiding smoking and smokers,
• following a healthful high-plant diet, and
• preventing and treating everything that damages arteries (which also can damage your brain), such as heart disease, strokes, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Exercising Your Brain
At the International Conference of the Alzheimer’s Association in Toronto on July 24, 2016, data were presented showing that older adults, averaging 73 years of age, who practiced increasing the speed at which they processed visual information for 10 years, reduced their chances of suffering dementia by 33 percent compared to those who received no training. This is supported by several previous studies showing that people who work at jobs or regular activities requiring complex thinking are at reduced likelihood to develop dementia.
Exercising Your Muscles
A study of 353 men and women, average age 69, found that those who had both excess body fat and small, weak muscles had the worst memory, speed in answering questions and executive function such as making intelligent decisions (Clinical Interventions in Aging, July 5, 2018;13). Those who had the weakest and smallest muscles had even worse mental function than those who were just obese and did not have excessive muscle weakness. Another well-performed study of more than 5000 people, with an average age over 70, also found that low muscle size is associated with increased risk for dementia (Age and Aging, March 2017;469(2):250–257).
Canadian researchers analyzed brain scans of 330 healthy adults, ages 19 to 79, and showed that those who walked up and down stairs regularly had younger and larger brains compared to those who did not use stairs (Neurobiology of Aging, April 2016;40:138–144). They estimated that for every flight of stairs per day a person reduces brain age by half a year. Walking up stairs burns two to three times as many calories as walking on level surfaces.
Overwhelming data show that regular exercise improves memory. Exercising muscles produce, and release into the bloodstream, a substance called cathepsin B (CTSB) that has been shown to increase memory and grow nerves in mice, monkeys and humans (Cell Metabolism, June 12, 2016). Many previous studies show that the higher the blood level of CTSB, the greater the improvement in fitness level and memory. Researchers showed that after just one week of exercise, a normal mouse’s memory improved dramatically. However mice who were genetically engineered to be unable to produce CTSB gained no memory improvement from exercise. Other exciting new studies are proceeding right now to find out if CTSB given to people will help to prevent or treat Alzheimer’s amyloid plaques.
A Healthful Plant-Based Diet
The high-plant MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) has been shown to reduce a person’s risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease by more than 50 percent (Alzheimer’s & Dementia, March 2015), as well as helping to prevent heart attacks. The MIND diet, based on the DASH diet and the traditional Mediterranean diets, includes lots of foods from plants (leafy greens and other vegetables, nuts, berries and other fruits, beans, whole grains). It can include fish, poultry, olive oil and wine but avoids red meats, butter, stick margarine, cheese, fried foods, pastries and sweets.
Earlier studies show that limiting sugar and controlling weight help to prevent dementia as well as diabetes and heart disease (N Eng J Med, Aug 8, 2013;369:540-548). Forty percent of North Americans will suffer from high blood sugar levels that are part of metabolic syndrome, pre-diabetes or diabetes, which all increase risk for dementia. Vegans live longer than those who eat meat and other animal products; each three per cent increase in calories from plant protein was found to reduce risk of death by 10 per cent (JAMA Int Med, August 1, 2016).
Smoking causes inflammation and oxidative stress. People who smoke develop dementia an average of 23 years earlier than nonsmokers, from damaged blood vessels (J. Cell. Mol. Med, 2008;12(6B):2762-2771) and nerves (Dement Geriatric Cogn Disord, 2010;30(3):277-84).
These recent studies show that you may be able to delay and perhaps prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia by:
• Exercising your brain
• Exercising your muscles
• Eating a healthful plant-based diet and restricting red meat (meat from mammals), sugar-added foods, sugared drinks including fruit juices, and fried foods
• Avoiding tobacco and alcohol
• Controlling high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar.
Any activity that challenges your brain counts as “exercise”, and the more complex the activity and the more often you do it, the better. It can be as simple as counting steps when you walk, reading, writing, drawing or painting, doing puzzles and playing games that require thinking. Limit the amount of time you spend in passive brain activities such as watching television.
I will watch for future research on cathepsin B (CTSB) to see if this chemical produced by exercising muscles is effective as a medication for preventing or treating dementia.