It's that time of year again. We've overindulged and now feel slightly guilty about it. Well I do anyway. So our thoughts turn to healthy eating - something we're constantly told is good for us and can help lower our risk of a whole range of diseases. Is it true? Can what we eat affect our chances of developing dementia? The evidence suggests a healthy lifestyle really can make a difference.
Boring as it may be, but a balanced diet is the best way to keep healthy. The NHS has some good advice on what a balanced diet is. Together with exercise, keeping healthy has so far been shown to be the best way to lower your risk of dementia. It can help us keep a healthy weight, which lowers our risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, and in turn, dementia.
More specifically, a Mediterranean diet often hits the headlines, as there has been some research suggesting following this diet may lower our risk of dementia. The evidence is not conclusive as these are mainly observational studies, not controlled clinical trials, but this version of a healthy diet with lots of fruit and vegetables, fish and low levels of saturated fats is appealing. Some studies have suggested that people who eat more oily fish are at a lower dementia risk - but research in this area is still ongoing. Experts recommend eating two portions a week.
There have been reports that curry, 'super foods' like berries or broccoli and particular drinks like apple juice or red wine can lower the risk of developing Alzheimer's or dementia. Sadly, there is no convincing evidence that this is the case.
Of all the things that may lower your dementia risk - this is the one with the most evidence behind it. Just a month ago a large study was published adding to the body of evidence that says what's good for your heart is good for your head. A recent review by the Cochrane Collaboration (internationally recognised as the highest standard in evidence-based healthcare) reported that exercise can also improve cognition in people with dementia.
And it's not just dementia... exercise can cut your risk of other diseases too, like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. It also decreases your chances of an early death. It can improve mood and sex drive. It's fun, it's free. I'm running out of excuses not to get up right now.
For tips on how to get started, these are the websites to visit:
And while you're at it, why not raise money for Alzheimer's Research UK?
What's a risk factor?
We often hear about 'risk factors' for certain diseases. A risk factor is anything that increases your chances of developing a disease. The biggest risk factor for dementia is age. The older you are, the more likely you are to develop it. There's nothing we can do about that. But, there are other risk factors that we can do something about.
These risk factors are the same as for cardiovascular disease (like heart disease and stroke). By leading a healthy lifestyle and taking regular exercise you will be lowering your risk of these diseases, and it's likely you will lower your risk of dementia too.
To keep healthy:
- Be active and exercise regularly
- Don't smoke
- Eat a healthy balanced diet
- Control high blood pressure
- Keep cholesterol at a healthy level
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Drink alcohol within recommended limits.
Studies suggest it's particularly important to keep healthy in mid-life to help lower your risk of dementia.
So, you eat healthily and take regular exercise. Problem solved? Unfortunately not, as dementia is caused by a range of diseases, with complex causes. Our lifestyle and environment are just a part of that. Our age, genes, family history and life events beyond our control all come in to play.
Alzheimer's Research UK is funding research into all of these factors to try and understand more about dementia. We're also researching new treatments - and we're more hopeful than ever that one will be available soon.
But we give ourselves the best chance of lowering our risk now with a healthy lifestyle. Time to get off the sofa.