Thursday, June 11, 2009

Can age-related dementia be prevented with diet and exercise?

The New York Times has a (June 11) article in a series called “Caring and Coping: The New Old Age” called “Can Dementia Be Prevented?” The author is Anne Underwood and the blog link is here.

The short answer seems to be, yes. The prevention is a combination of mental activity and especially physical activity and healthful habits.

The biggest risk of dementia may come from ordinary vascular risks, including high blood sugar (glucose intolerance and insulin resistance migrating toward Type II diabetes) and coronary artery disease, which eventually leads to plaque and clots and the risks of small strokes. A healthful circulatory system flushes away certain proteins that might eventually become amyloid plaque. So all the lifestyle issues apply, with a low fat, low refined carb diet being desirable. Not all dementia is formal Alzheimer’s; vascular dementia (from heart and circulation problems) is also increasing in frequency, and the two may interact (check Wikipedia).

The other factor is mental activity. The article mentions crossword puzzles, and one can imagine the benefit of chess or games, or of computer skills (even the research it takes to write a blog like this one). Some people do better with a lot of social stimulation, especially from family (read about aboulia). But here we have an apples and oranges thing. People vary in how much social activity they need. Some people badly need it to stay sharp and motivated, where others are harmed by too much of it.

There is emerging research in treating or preventing dementia with all kinds of stimulation, physical and social, to rewire brain circuits. But the results are likely to vary enormously among patients based on genetics, age, personality, temperament, and many other factors.

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