Medically reviewed by Shahzadi Devje, Registered Dietitian (RD) & Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE)
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.
Making sandwiches was my teenage jam.
My first job was at 16. I worked as a tea lady in a nursing home, in England. Most days, you’d find me preparing sandwiches, snacks, and tea for the lovely folks at Wingfield. I learnt so much about life; from listening to seniors’ stories, and soaking in their wisdom. Not to mention, the pleasure of serving my elderly friends was a feeling like no other. We would sing songs, take part in plays and enjoy movement.
In those moments, I also realized the impact of disease – Dementia. I realized that the mood changes that accompany this heart-breaking condition are exhausting.
I’ll never forget Mary. She was a loving, creative and funny lady, who’s struggle with dementia was felt by all around her – including me. Some days, I’d find myself interacting with a jovial, happy-go-lucky Mary, who’d want to chat non-stop. On other days, Mary was depressed, withdrawn, and aggressive. I’d wonder, how frustrating and confusing it must be for Mary to lose control of her emotions.
And just like Mary, there are millions who struggle with this debilitating disease. A staggering 50 million in fact, are affected by dementia globally – projected to triple by 2050, according to a new report and guidelines by The World Health Organization (WHO). In 2015, the total global societal cost of dementia was estimated to be US$ 818 billion.
Your Diet and Lifestyle Can Reduce Your Risk Of Dementia
Whilst 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 reduce your risk of dementia.
In WHO’s new Dementia guidelines, key healthy habits were assessed – shown to help reduce 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 predominantly plant based diet; 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 build-up of plaque, associated with dementia risk. Find a collection of nourishing predominantly plant based recipes here.
Incorporate Regular Physical Activity Into Your Routine
This was in fact the number one recommendation by the WHO – to reduce risk of dementia. As cognitive function declines with ageing, being physically active helps to reduce this decline. Participating in any activity – for at least 150 minutes per week, has shown to lower the risk of dementia. Studies indicate that those who exercise more are less likely to develop dementia of any kind. It is believed that the neural and vascular adaptations to physical exercise improve cognitive function through promotion of neurogenesis (formation of new neurons), angiogenesis (formation of new blood vessels), synaptic plasticity (to support learning and memory), and decreased inflammation in the brain.
Minimize/Avoid Highly Processed Foods
It’s true; what’s good for the heart is also good for the brain. The WHO recommends minimizing or avoiding processed grains; like white refined flour, white rice, and white pasta. Not to mention, minimizing foods laden with added sugar, sodium, and saturated fats – like butter, ghee and red meat – as much as possible. Such advice echos what we typically hear to support cardiovascular health: reduction in high blood pressure, high cholesterol and optimal blood sugar management. What was interesting is that the WHO did not advocate any vitamin or mineral supplementation, to help reduce risk of cognitive decline or dementia.
Quit Smoking And Reduce/Cease Alcohol Consumption
Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable death globally, the WHO report states. Not only does tobacco use increase your risk of heart disease and cancer, but studies show that it can lead to cognitive decline – having a direct affect on your brain health.
Other Lifestyle Factors
The WHO share additional lifestyle factors that have less evidence but may also help; such as: getting sufficient sleep, positive relationships, and social interactions – shown to promote brain health
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, can help to reduce your risk of dementia.