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Fighting dementia

Living longer is all well and good, but what kind of old age awaits us? Taking steps to ward off dementia now, Joanna Tovia discovers, will make for happier days in more ways than one

Fighting dementia

The latest statistics show we are living longer than ever and, while that’s good news for anyone who wants to stick around for as long as they can, for me it has raised a few questions. If I’m to live into my 80s, what kind of guarantee do I have that my marbles will still be in tact? I’m not really interested in living a longer life if I don’t remember who my loved ones are and can’t tie my own shoelaces.

Looking for answers, I learned that UK and French researchers have just discovered that cognitive decline begins from the age of 45, 15 years earlier than previously thought. To come to this conclusion, the Centre for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health in France and University College London studied 5198 men and 2192 women, all civil servants, and tested their memory, vocabulary, and comprehension skills over a 10-year period. Cognitive scores declined in all categories except vocabulary, starting at age 45, and accelerated as people aged.

The authors argue that such robust evidence of cognitive decline before the age of 60 has important ramifications because it shows the importance of healthy lifestyles, particularly cardiovascular health, from an early age. “What’s good for our hearts is also good for our heads,” they conclude.

Other research also encourages us to think about keeping our brain healthy from an early age. We all know the importance of doing Sudoku and crossword puzzles in our old age to keep our brains in tip-top shape, but recent brain imaging research from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that people who make an effort to stay mentally engaged throughout their lives – not just in their twilight years – lower their risk of Alzheimer’s.

In line with these findings, the Alzheimer’s Association advises keeping your brain active every day, no matter what your age, by staying curious and staying involved. In other words, do a course, attend lectures and plays, read, write and, yes, do crossword puzzles. 

Staying lucid into my final days is a pretty good incentive to follow this advice. They also recommend adopting a brain healthy diet, one that reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes and encourages good blood flow to the brain. Keep your body at a healthy weight, too – those who are obese in middle age are twice as likely to develop dementia later in life. 

There are other things you can do. Up your intake of protective foods – dark-skinned fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants, fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and nuts – and do some regular aerobic exercise. It doesn’t have to be strenuous or time consuming, just 30 minutes a day is said to work wonders. And if you can combine physical activity with a companion or two, so much the better, because staying socially active maintains brain vitality. You could join a club, travel more, or volunteer your time and skills for a worthy cause.

If you do all this and still end up going batty, at least you will have had a bounce in your step along the way. You will have engaged in the world, connected with others and enjoyed the feelgood vitality that comes with eating well and moving your body. Sounds pretty good to me.

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