The Essential Guide to Avoiding Dementia

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understanding the risks

written by Mary Jordan

Publisher: Hammersmith Press

Cover price: £14.99 paperback
160 pages

As the foreword of this timely new book has it, the ‘D’ word, Dementia, is the disease we all fear the most. What we know about it is that it is affecting more and more people, as a consequence of the ageing population; it is a terminal condition with no cure, and precious little by way of treatment.

You might think that this is not a very helpful starting point for a book on how to avoid a disease, but Mary Jordan – who has both professional and personal experience of dementia care – presents the information we do have in a clear way, and draws together the results of various studies from around the world, to offer up the best current guidance on what we can expect if we develop the condition, and what we can do to protect ourselves.

Reading this book will give you a better understanding not only of the different types of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia are the most common, but also the condition known as Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), which shares some symptoms with dementia, and can lead to a higher risk of developing the disease. It also sets out clearly the difference between normal ageing, which may well involve occasional forgetfulness, inability to put a name to a face, groping for the right word; and early dementia symptoms.

Anybody who has found themselves worrying that older age will mean they are no longer able to learn new skills or cope with changing technology should take heart from the research which shows that, although it may take a bit longer, a healthy older brain can acquire new skills just as well as a younger one. Indeed, the habit which many adopt with age, of sticking with familiar routines, and refusing to take on board anything new and unfamiliar, could make avoiding dementia more of a challenge. Lifestyle choices and personality type also seem to play a powerful role – and whilst we can’t do very much about the sort of person we are, we can certainly take steps to ensure that we don’t fall into habitual social isolation and inactivity, both of which are detrimental to the health of our brains.

Personally, I found the chapters dealing with exercise and nutrition particularly compelling. There has been much discussion in the media about the benefits of keeping your brain active, by doing puzzles, crosswords, etc but in fact, at least equally as important as varied cognitive stimuli, is physical exercise. If you are a habitual solver of sudoku, stepping up your quotient of puzzles won’t help, but picking up a new mental challenge might well do so, and a cardiovascular workout certainly will. There is evidence that physical exercise also reduces the symptoms of cognitive impairment in people who already have dementia.

Why physical exercise should have a beneficial effect on the functioning of the brain is not quite clear, but perhaps the increased supply of oxygen is effective in the same way that it improves the health of the heart. Which brings me to nutrition. Having learnt that the brain uses nearly a quarter of all the oxygen and glucose that we consume, this book has some very interesting things to say about the role of diet in avoiding dementia, and research findings which suggest that the sort of “heart healthy” diet conscientious people in their middle years tend to follow may be depriving their brains of sufficient glucose. Dietary fats and cholesterol are not necessarily the demons that we believe them to be!

Stress is another influential factor – particularly the sort that is hard to get away from, like working at a job where demands are high and you have low levels of control, or having full-time caring responsibilities that you can’t escape from. Animal studies have shown a link between chronic stress and dementia, and a current research project by the Alzheimer’s Society is investigating the connection. One of the statistics that jumped out at me – indeed, it is hard to know how it could fail to do so – is that the spouse of someone with dementia has a 600% greater risk of developing the condition themselves than they would otherwise. It is currently accepted that you can’t ‘catch’ the disease, but there must be some explanation for this dramatically increased incidence. Perhaps it is a shared, unhealthy lifestyle – or maybe, the social isolation and stress of looking after someone with dementia takes its toll on the carer’s health.

The Essential Guide to Avoiding Dementia also highlights some fascinating connections between dementia and various illnesses, notably diabetes, stroke and depression; and accidents, from traumatic head injury to post-operative delirium, caused by general anaesthetic. Whilst there may be more questions than answers when it comes to dementia, this book certainly gives you a much clearer idea of likely contributing factors, and the many practical steps each of us can take to minimise the risks – and to make the best of circumstances if we, or someone we care for, develops the condition.

Reviewed by: Frances Leckie, Independent Living’s Editor

Click the links below for more information that may be of help if you care for someone with dementia:

Independent Living’s guide to telecare – services to monitor your friend or relative’s well-being when you can’t be there.

For information on products to help make life easier and more comfortable, please visit our Independent Living Product Centre

Guide to financial benefits

Guide to Carer Resources

Guide to palliative care

Further resources for carers

Remember – if you don’t find the answer to your question here, you can always email us, and we’ll do our best to help.