Keeping your brain healthy
It's never too late to adopt healthy behaviours that look after your brain – even if you already have a diagnosis of dementia.
• Eat a diet low in cholesterol, salt and sugar• Get plenty of exercise• Don't smoke cigarettes• Limit your alcohol consumption• Be socially active• Take part in intellectual leisure activities• Wear hearing aids if you have hearing loss• Get enough sleep
Food and drink
There is a collection of evidence that suggests a Mediterranean diet – one rich in vegetables, fresh fruit, grains, unsaturated fat, olive oil, fish and beans – is good for brain health. This is partly because this type of diet is low in saturated fat and sugar, so reduces the risk of conditions like diabetes and obesity that are in turn risk factors for dementia.
There is evidence that certain compounds found in mushrooms, dark leafy greens, eggs, soya, beetroot and squash are effective in reducing the risk of developing dementia. Read our blog post on food and dementia for more detail on this.
Alcohol has a complex relationship with dementia. Heavy drinking has been established as a risk factor for dementia and directly causes alcohol-related dementia. However, there is also evidence that light to moderate alcohol intake in mid-late life could decrease your risk of dementia. Plus, red wine contains flavanols, which have been linked to a reduced risk of dementia. DPUK Director Professor John Gallacher, a professor of cognitive health at Oxford University, recommends limiting alcohol intake to seven units a week to account for both sides of the coin.
Caffeine has been shown to contribute to a decreased risk of Alzheimer's disease by potentially reducing the amount of a harmful protein called amyloid that is deposited in the brain. The amount that people in the study drank was at least two cups of coffee a day.
Dehydration has been suggested to speed up the progression of dementia and is commonly associated with urinary tract infections and delirium in people with dementia. Water is involved in the correct 'folding' of proteins in the body, which is the process by which proteins organise themselves into a functional unit. A lack of water can contribute to the misfolding and clumping of certain proteins seen in Alzheimer's disease. It is important to drink plenty of water to keep your brain – and the rest of your body – healthy.
There is a long-established link between smoking and dementia: smoking is a risk factor for dementia and can also speed up the progression of dementia via the mini-strokes that underpin vascular dementia. Therefore, not smoking is a way to reduce your risk of dementia. There is even some weak observational evidence that there is an association with passive smoking and increased risk of dementia, so avoiding smokers' areas if you don't smoke could help your brain health.
Similar to a healthy diet, exercising can lower your risk of developing dementia by helping to keep cholesterol and obesity at bay, as well as keeping your blood vessels and heart healthy. Read our blog post about the link between heart and brain health for more information about their close relationship. The latest evidence shows that exercise reduces decline in thinking and memory skills in people with Alzheimer's disease, and improves their physical and mental wellbeing.
Hearing loss was named as one of the 12 risk factors for dementia in The Lancet's latest review. Now, research by scientists at DPUK and Ulster University has found that hearing aid use among people with hearing loss is associated with a lower risk of dementia. So, if you have a hearing impairment, it's a good idea to wear a hearing aid.
Sleep is crucial for creating long-lasting memories, and healthy adults should get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Research suggests that middle-aged adults with insomnia have a higher risk of developing dementia, plus a study of older women showed that not getting enough sleep was a predictor of dementia. The Sleep Foundation has advice for how to get a good night's sleep.
To keep your brain working at its best, it's important to keep it regularly stimulated. One way to do this is by taking part in intellectual leisure activities. A recent study has found that regularly reading a newspaper and using a mobile phone were associated with a lower risk of dementia. Other activities identified as reducing a person's risk of dementia include reading, attending a club, manual hobbies like needlework, and arts-related activities like visiting galleries or theatres.
One study has developed the association further by exploring the physical properties of brain damage in relation to the leisure activities people took part in. The diseases that cause dementia can cause physical gaps in the brain by destroying the brain cells there. But this research found that leisure activities like playing card games and crosswords, among other things, preserved people's thinking abilities even if their brain scans showed lots of physical damage.
So, keeping intellectually active both helps to prevent dementia and also reduces the symptoms experienced by people who do have dementia.
Another way to keep your brain active is to stay socially active. Not only does keeping in touch with friends and family have a positive effect on mood, studies have shown that it can protect against a decline in thinking skills. Of course, its effect on mood could contribute to this, as loneliness and depression are both linked to a decline in memory and thinking abilities.
Even small amounts of social interaction can make a positive difference: one study shows that interacting with someone else for just 10 minutes before taking memory and attention tasks improved people's results.
A great source of information on ways to keep your brain healthy is The Lancet's recent list of the 12 top risk factors for dementia, which also names stress and air pollution as risk factors. A good way to reduce your risk of dementia is to do whatever you can to reduce your exposure to the 12 things explored in the report.
Helpfully, the NHS has published some actions people can take to reduce the likelihood of depression, anxiety and stress, which could in turn reduce the risk of dementia.