Guest Contributor Daniel Kuhn, LCSW, Vice-President of Education, All Trust Home Care
Apart from genetic factors, lifestyle behaviors have long been associated with disease and mortality. Smoking tobacco, for example, is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States. However, poor diet and physical inactivity run a close second to smoking as factors that increase the risk of deadly diseases. Cardiovascular diseases such as coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and stroke are major risk factors for dementia. All of these health conditions are related, at least in part, to physical inactivity and poor diet. Over the past decade, exercise and diet have been linked to dementia as well. A growing number of studies suggest that regular exercise and a healthy diet may reduce the risk of dementia.
Exercise is clearly helpful for cardiovascular, respiratory and musculoskeletal systems. Aerobic activity, in particular, improves cardiovascular fitness and may also have beneficial effects on memory and thinking skills among older people. A recent review of prospective studies documented a significantly reduced risk of dementia associated with midlife exercise, compared to people who were inactive. In particular, regular aerobic exercise in healthy adults is associated with reduced loss of brain volume in old age. Research studies are examining the intensity and types of physical exercise needed to reduce the risk of dementia.
Preliminary evidence suggests that stretching and toning exercises may not be beneficial for brain health. However, brisk walking and aerobic exercises several times weekly have shown the most benefits. The consensus to date is that more time spent exercising as well as greater intensity of exercise improve the odds of reducing the risk of dementia. Randomized-controlled trials are currently underway that will eventually shed more light on the role of exercise in preventing or slowing down the progression of dementia. One such study, EXERT, is now enrolling volunteers throughout the U.S. who have mild memory problems and are willing to take part in a prescribed exercise program at YMCA centers. For details and locations of this research study, see: www.exertstudy.org
A growing body of evidence suggests that one’s food choices may affect the risk of dementia. A Western diet has been loosely defined as one high in saturated fats, red meats, high-sugar drinks, and “empty” carbohydrates – junk food. It is also low in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seafood, and poultry. Unfortunately, the Western diet has been positively correlated with an elevated incidence of cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and cancer, especially colon cancer. Most recently, the link between consuming the Western diet and developing dementia has received growing attention.