The World Health Organization has released its first official guidelines to reduce the risk of dementia. The full report lays out the healthy habits – including diet and lifestyle – thought to be critical for brain health.

Vegan meal prep containers with cooked ingredients: marinated tofu, beans, baked vegetables, green salad and vegetable sticks.

Making sandwiches was my teenage jam. Back when I was 16, my first job was working as a tea lady at a nursing home in England. Most days, you’d find me preparing sandwiches, snacks, and tea for the lovely residents at Wingfield.

When I listened to the stories of my elders, I found great life lessons within them. For example, Betty, a high-spirited 90-year-old woman, shared marital advice that I’ll never forget: “don’t ever go to bed angry.” And, each time I delivered Mrs. White’s afternoon tea, she’d thank me with a smile and remind me to save money for my future.

In those moments, I also became acutely aware of the severity of dementia and how emotionally draining it can be.

Mary’s struggle with dementia was difficult for all those around her, myself included. Some days Mary would be happy and chatty, while other days, she would be depressed and withdrawn. I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for her to lose control of her emotions like that.

According to a new report and guidelines by The World Health Organization (WHO), over 50 million people worldwide are affected by dementia, with that number projected to triple by 2050. In 2015, the total global societal cost of dementia was estimated to be US$ 818 billion.

Diet and lifestyle can reduce the risk of dementia.

While there are many causes, Alzheimer’s and vascular dementias are closely related to and greatly influenced by the same diet and lifestyle factors. In other words, your diet and lifestyle can potentially reduce your risk of dementia.

WHO’s new Dementia guidelines promote key healthy habits to help reduce the risk of dementia.

Here’s a summary of the WHO’s recommendations:

Enjoy a healthy, balanced Mediterranean-style diet.

A growing body of evidence indicates that following a Mediterranean-style eating pattern may protect against cognitive decline. In other words, eating a whole foods plant based diet (WFPB)rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and seafood, may help to reduce your risk of dementia. Besides offering anti-inflammatory benefits, such a dietary pattern is also linked with less plaque build-up, which is associated with dementia risk.

Incorporate regular physical activity into your routine

Physical exercise was, in fact, the number one recommendation by the WHO – to reduce the risk of dementia.

Although cognitive function typically declines as we age, being physically active regularly can help reduce this decline. According to research, participating in consistent exercise – for at least 150 minutes per week lowers the risk of developing dementia.

Studies indicate that those who exercise more are less likely to develop dementia of any kind. Some believe that cognitive function can be improved through physical exercise by sparking neurogenesis (formation of new neurons), angiogenesis (creation of new blood vessels), synaptic plasticity (which supports learning and memory), and decreased inflammation in the brain.

A person doing a yoga tree pose in the dark with a yellow light source entering through a door.

Minimize/avoid highly processed foods

It’s true; what’s good for heart health is also good for the brain. The WHO suggests that people should try to minimize their intake of processed grains, like white refined flour, white rice, and white pasta. In addition, they recommend minimizing foods that contain a lot of sugar, salt, or saturated fat – like butter, ghee and red meat.

The WHO’s suggestions for cognitive decline prevention coincide with what we usually hear to support heart health: reducing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and managing blood sugar levels. What was noteworthy is that the WHO didn’t recommend any vitamin or mineral supplementation.

Quit smoking and reduce/cease alcohol consumption

Tobacco use is the number one cause of preventable death worldwide, as stated in the WHO report. Not only does smoking cigarettes increase your risk of heart disease and cancer, but studies show that it can lead to cognitive decline – directly affecting your brain health.

Other lifestyle factors play a role.

The WHO suggests further lifestyle changes that may improve brain health, though there is less evidence to support them. These include getting enough sleep and maintaining positive relationships and social interactions.

What’s the take-home message?

Whether you have a family history of dementia or are experiencing mild symptoms of cognitive impairment; such as confusion and forgetfulness – embracing a predominantly plant based diet, regular physical activity, minimizing highly processed foods, quitting smoking and curbing alcohol use could help reduce your risk.

While more research is needed, the WHO’s guidelines support our current understanding of how diet and lifestyle can positively impact brain health. It may be worth chatting with your healthcare provider about incorporating some of these recommendations into your routine to potentially reduce risk and maintain cognitive function as you age.

Remember, maintaining a healthy lifestyle doesn’t guarantee the prevention of cognitive decline. Still, it may help reduce risk and delay its onset. And as always, if you have concerns about your memory or daily functioning, speak with a healthcare professional. Early detection and treatment can potentially slow the progression of dementia.

Desi~liciously Yours, Shahzadi