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September 17, 2015

‘Creating a Dementia Friendly Nation’ – Dementia Month 2015

What is Dementia?

Dementia describes a collection of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain. It is not one specific disease. Dementia affects thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday tasks. Brain function is affected

enough to interfere with the person’s normal social or working life. The hallmark of dementia is the inability to carry out everyday activities as a consequence of diminished cognitive ability.

What is a Dementia Friendly Community?

A dementia-friendly community is a place where people living with dementia are supported to live a high quality of life with meaning, purpose and value.

Carol Bennet, the CEO of Alzheimer’s Australia talks of Building Dementia Friendly Communities in a White Paper launched in Canberra on Sept 7 2015.

She says ‘…care for the welfare of others, equality of opportunity and fairness remain core Australian values. People living with dementia are among our society’s most vulnerable, and it is widely acknowledged that, following a diagnosis, many experience increased isolation. With our population ageing and with dementia now the second leading cause of death in Australia, the time to ready Australia for this growing challenge is now. At Alzheimer’s Australia we firmly believe that making society more understanding of those with a cognitive impairment and improving the accessibility of a community’s physical environment is beneficial to the entire population. Those most vulnerable in our society may benefit the most from change, but everyone stands to gain from living in a society that’s more tolerant, easier to navigate, and designed to cater to a wide range of needs. That’s why we believe so strongly in creating dementia friendly communities that support those living with dementia to remain engaged, included and connected.’

You can listen to people’s personal stories and find the full White Paper at the Alzheimer’s Australia website: https://www.dementia.org.au/dementia-friendly-communities

What are some things you can do to reduce your risk of Dementia?

(1) PHYSICAL ACTIVITY People who do regular physical activity have healthier brains, better memory, planning and other thinking skills, and have less chance of developing dementia.

How does physical activity help the brain?

The brain continues to grow new cells and connections between them throughout life. This is referred to as brain plasticity. We also know that the brain requires adequate blood flow to receive the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function well.

Physical activity supports both these important aspects of brain biology.

People doing regular moderate-intensity physical activity have increased brain volume in regions important for memory, learning, concentration and planning. This suggests that they have more brain cells and more connections between them, helping their brain to function more effectively.

Older adults who are physically active have brain volumes and connectivity typical of younger adults.

(2) MENTAL EXERCISE  Keeping the brain active is thought to build reserves of healthy brain cells and connections between them. The role that exercising the brain may play in reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia has therefore been the subject of considerable research.

Numerous studies have shown that engaging in more mentally stimulating activities throughout life is associated with better cognitive function, reduced cognitive decline and a reduced risk of developing dementia. Studies of large groups of people have shown that those who achieve higher levels of education, have more mentally demanding occupations, or participate in higher numbers of mentally stimulating leisure activities have around a 50% lower risk of developing dementia.

Activity that exercises the brain may build brain reserve that helps to compensate for the damage caused by Alzheimer’s or other diseases. Because the brain is able to compensate and keep functioning well, the onset of dementia may be delayed.

Mental exercise can and should be a very enjoyable part of life. Almost any type of mental activity may be beneficial, but they should involve new learning and be reasonably complex, varied and interesting, and engaged in frequently.

Some activities that involve exercise for the brain, and have also been associated with reduced dementia risk as part of a mentally active lifestyle are listed in the Fact Sheet Mental Exercise and Dementia

(3) EAT WELL  A number of dietary factors have been associated with a reduced risk of developing dementia. These include:

  • Lower intake of saturated and transunsaturated fats – Foods high in saturated fat include butter, lard, meat, full-fat dairy products, coconut oil, palm oil and chocolate. Trans fats are used widely in some fast food, snack foods, fried foods and commercially baked goods like cakes and biscuits. These processed foods can also be high in salt and/or sugar.
    • Higher intake of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats – A higher intake of monounsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats has been associated with a lower risk of developing dementia. These fats may increase levels of HDL cholesterol, which may help protect brain cells. Foods high in protective unsaturated fats include:

• olive oil and olives
• some margarines and vegetable oils
• avocados
• nuts and seeds
• fish

      • Higher intake of omega-3 fats Omega-3 fats are thought to protect blood vessels and may reduce inflammation in the brain. They may also have a specific role in both brain development and maintaining healthy nerve cells. Research is continuing into the role of omega-3 fats in the brain.

Omega-3 is found in foods including:
• Fish (in particular oily fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and tuna)
• Flaxseed (linseed) oil
• Walnuts
• Eggs

      • Higher intake of some antioxidants and vitamins Antioxidants mop up destructive chemical molecules in the body known as free radicals, which result from our body’s use of oxygen to generate energy. Free radicals may contribute to brain cell death in Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

Some studies looking at whether antioxidants protect against Alzheimer’s disease have shown that vitamins C and E and beta-carotene might be protective. However, these findings are not conclusive and it appears there may not be very strong effects from any one particular nutrient.

Fruits and vegetables are good sources of antioxidants. The highest concentrations are found in the most deeply or brightly coloured fruits and vegetables. Research suggests that those who eat more fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of developing dementia. Antioxidants are also found in whole grains, tea (especially green tea), vegetable oils, dark chocolate and red wine (but for good health these last two should be limited).

      • Higher intake of vegetables and fruits 
      • Moderate consumption of alcohol (with caution – too much alcohol poses a significant health risk)

Diet also affects the risk of developing heart disease and stroke, which are in turn risk factors for dementia. Too much saturated fat in the diet can contribute to high cholesterol levels, too much salt can result in high blood pressure (hypertension), and too much sugar raises the risk of type 2 diabetes. These conditions are also associated with increased risk of dementia.

Alzheimer’s Australia have excellent Help Sheets for Individuals, Communities and Carers thoroughly covering dementia topics.