Much of preventing memory issues in old age is within our control, said Dr. Paul Lyons, a neurologist with Winchester Neurological Consultants.
Food choices, exercise and quality education early in life are some of the main ways he said people can have their best chance at avoiding dementia.
“These are things that are readily in our hands,” he said.
“If you think about what is in our hands today … there’s already things that we can do that are really simple and not terribly complex.”
He cited a 2018 study published in The Lancet: Neurology journal touting the benefits of the MIND diet — a combination of the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH Diet — on memory prevention and treatment.
The study, “Nutrition and Prevention of Cognitive Impairment,” by Dr. Nikolaos Scarmeas, Costas A. Anastasiou and Mary Yannakoulia, found that certain nutrients and foods had a protective association with cognitive outcomes in older people.
The nutrients they isolated include folate, flavonoids, vitamin D and certain lipids. Beneficial foods included seafood, vegetables, fruits and moderate amounts of alcohol and caffeine.
“For some nutrients and food groups, protection might be greater in individuals with either deficiencies in certain nutrients or a genetic predisposition to cognitive impairment,” the paper states.
“Identification of potentially different associations between such subgroups should be a priority for future research,” it says. “At present, evidence of an association between nutrition and cognitive outcomes is somehow stronger for healthy dietary patterns, such as the Mediterranean-type diet, than for individual nutrients and food groups, possibly because of the cumulative beneficial effects of the many ingredients in these diets.”
The Mediterranean Diet focuses on foods that people who live in the Mediterranean region typically include in their diets, while the Dash Diet was designed to lower blood pressure, Lyons said.
The MIND Diet, which stands for the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, focuses on green vegetables; other veggies like peppers, squash or carrots; nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil and limited servings of wine, which Lyons said has anti-inflammatory properties.
Likewise, he said there are foods to avoid when possible, in particular red meat, butter and other forms of saturated fat, cheese, pastries and other sweets and fast or fried foods.
“If you think about what’s readily in our hands, none of this is rocket science,” Lyons said.
In addition to nutrition, he listed social interactions, walking or other forms of exercise, and treatment of hearing loss among the elderly and hypertension among middle-aged individuals as major ways to prevent cognitive impairment.
“Walking is indispensable to our health,” he said. “You’re using your entire peripheral nervous system.”
He also listed several risk factors that are largely within a person’s control to either prevent throughout their life or treat with help from family, friends or a health professional.
These include high blood pressure, hearing impairment, smoking, being overweight or obese, depression, physical inactivity, diabetes, social isolation, excessive alcohol consumption, air pollution and traumatic brain injury.
Additionally, he listed poor educational attainment starting early in a person’s life as a risk factor for eventual cognitive impairment.
Though genetics and luck can play a role in dementia, Lyons said a major percentage of a person’s risk of having memory issues is modifiable.
“You can’t go back in time,” he said. But you can make small changes that make a big impact little by little, one day at a time.
“Tiny things we do tens of thousands of times, weekly or monthly ... year after year after year,” he said. “A big part of dementia really is lifestyle.”
For information on the study published in The Lancet: Neurology, go to tinyurl.com/y5z5nwen.