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6 ways to prevent dementia – the neuroscientist’s guide

Do you fear getting dementia? Concerned about your memory? Globally-renowned neuroscientist, Dr Sabina Brennan brings you the preventative measures that work

The brain in all its glory, is the most precious and important organ in our entire body.  Yet it’s astonishing how we neglect this powerhouse, with little thought to its upkeep in our healthcare regimes.

As the world’s population increases, the number of older adults with dementia is predicted to increase to 132 million by 2050, says neuroscientist Dr Sabina Brennan in her new book, 100 Days to a Younger Brain.

With no current cure for dementia, lifestyle factors can play a key role. Here are six ways to help reduce your risk of getting dementia and beat the statistics that Dr Brennan recommends in her book.

Dementia prevention #1 Sleep and wake up at the same time each day

Sleep is vital for brain health, yet it is shocking how few of us get our recommended hours of sleep (which is 7 to 8 hours). Only one in three of us are getting sufficient sleep, making the World Health Organization declare sleep loss an official epidemic.

It’s important to go to bed and get up at the same time each day says Brennan.

Sleep acts as a detox for our brain and our body as it clears out neural waste products that build up in our central nervous systems throughout the day.

Without a good night’s sleep, our brains don’t have time to flush away these toxins and the build-up remains. In particular, the nasty sticky protein, beta-amyloid builds up, which is the primary cause of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

The build-up of beta-amyloid causes plaques to form in between nerves cells in the brain – similar to the plaque build-up you can get in between your teeth. This build-up blocks crucial brain signalling between synapses (these are the gaps between nerve cells in the brain that transmit signals – almost like the telephone lines in your brain), triggering inflammation and causing severe brain damage.

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Sleep is vital for good brain health as it flushes out all the nasty gunk that builds up in your body during the day.

This then makes it difficult for your brain to function well and it slowly becomes disorientated increasing your risk of dementia.

How to cherish your sleep and prevent the rise of dementia

It’s important to go to bed and get up at the same time each day, says Brennan.

It sounds simple but how many of us do it? You might keep the routine up for one or two days, and then before you know it, you’re asleep on the sofa at 7pm.

But research has shown that getting both rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep (see below) is critical for brain health- which is what happens if you have a regular sleep and wake up pattern.

Older adults who have dementia have lower levels of non-REM sleep and their brains have reduced learning capacity

But first…what is REM and non-REM sleep?

Your sleep is categorised in five stages depending on whether rapid eye movement (REM) occurs or not. Non-REM sleep is ‘characterised by slow brainwaves interspersed with a burst of activity called spindles’, says Brennan. Most of your sleep in the first half of the night is non-REM and your deepest sleep is in non-REM sleep stages 3 and 4. The second half of the night, when you dream, is when you experience REM sleep where the electrical activity recorded during this stage is very similar to that of a brain that is ‘awake’.

So, as well as getting your recommended hours of sleep, you also need to make sure you are getting enough of both types of sleep. It has been shown that older adults who have dementia and have lower levels of non-REM sleep, also have reduced learning capacity.

If you are going to bed after midnight and not getting your recommended hours of sleep, you are depriving your brain of the time it has to carry out important activities of both non-REM and REM sleep.

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Keep a set time to wake up and sleep at each day so you can get both REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep.

With just one night of sleep deprivation, the growth of new neurons in your brain is impaired and there is weakened learning and encoding-related activity within the hippocampus, which is the part of your brain that temporarily stores new memories. So it is important to get a balanced amount of both non-REM and REM sleep by picking a regular time to sleep and wake up each day.

Dementia prevention #2 Don’t be stressed, be excited

Feeling forgetful? Lost your sense of humour? Unhealthy eating habits? These are a few common signs of stress that can unfortunately build up and increase your risk of dementia.

But how can you manage your stress and get your brain mojo back?

Firstly, the stress might not be all bad.  Brennan focuses on the positive aspects of stress and how you need an optimal amount. ‘The total absence of stress is associated with boredom and disengagement, neither of which is good for your brain health or indeed your mental health’, she asserts.

Scientific research suggests taking part in a mentally challenging task can help protect your brain against the damage caused by stress

Experiencing chronic, ongoing stress that doesn’t let up – and the poor management of it – is what can initially affect your brain’s behaviour including your ability to learn and remember. If stress hormones are continuously being released and left unchecked, your heart rate becomes abnormal, blood pressure is elevated and your arteries begin to harden. This can then lead to a reduction in brain volume and increase your risk of developing dementia, Brennan explains.

One way of managing stress is to, plainly put it, be excited advises Brennan.

At what, you ask?

Be excited at the small pleasures in life, some which can seem stressful but can also be seen as a challenge, Brennan asserts. ‘Life would be boring and static without challenge, uncertainty and novelty,’ she says. True to some extent right?  For example, what would life be like if we never went on that first date, attended that job interview, never made that risk to go on a spontaneous volunteering trip abroad or made that public speech?

Loneliness is a silent killer. Over 9 million people in the UK across all adult ages are either always lonely or often lonely. That’s more than the population of London.

Moreover, taking part in a mentally challenging task can help protect your brain against the damage caused by stress, research suggests.

But while stress can limit your brain as you age, your prefrontal cortex, a part of your brain responsible for making decisions and judging situations, can become stronger and the survival of neurons in your hippocampus can be maintained if you stay positive and manage your stress by seeking the right support when needed.

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‘Next time you get that wobbly feeling in your gut, try naming it as excitement rather than stress’, Brennan advises.

Even though you may fear certain challenges, this fear will work in your favour as you reap the rewards after the challenge has passed and you’ve learned from experience (even if you’ve failed). Making that small shift from fear to excitement can make a huge difference, says Brennan.

Next time you get that wobbly feeling in your gut, try naming it as excitement rather than stress’, Brennan suggests. Managing your stress by being excited can protect your prefrontal cortex and hippocampus from shrinking – and make you feel better too.

Dementia prevention #3 Do 10 minutes of social activity a day

Loneliness is a silent killer. Over 9 million people in the UK across all adult ages are either always lonely or often lonely. That’s more than the population of London.

It’s the sad reality we live in, but being or feeling lonely can have a negative impact on our brains through disturbed sleep patterns, abnormal stress responses, unhealthy blood pressure levels and greater cognitive decline. No one wants to be lonely or heighten their chances of getting dementia.

So what can you do to prevent loneliness?

Well, just ten minutes of social activity a day is the answer says Brennan. ‘Social interaction increases your brain volume and leads to more efficient use of brain networks’, Brennan says.

If you are someone who finds being socially active quite the chore, try to give up at least ten minutes of your time to that favourite hobby of yours. So then it doesn’t feel like a ‘chore’ but becomes part of your lifestyle.

Whether it be reading, drawing/painting or a creative pastime, this will not only benefit you and your mental health and well-being, it will also help you to fight your chances of getting dementia in the long run.

Those who developed dementia showed a delay in the onset of accelerated memory decline for two months when they participated in a social activity each day

Recent research shows just how important social activity is for your brain. This study looked into whether taking part in brain stimulating leisurely activities (e.g. reading, writing, crosswords, board/card games, discussion and playing music) in later life could affect the pathway of memory decline. And they found that it can, in a positive way.

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Just ten minutes of a social activity, such as playing cards, can reduce your risk of getting dementia.

Over the course of the study, 101 participants out of a total of 488 had developed dementia. Those who developed dementia showed a delay in the onset of accelerated memory decline for two months when they participated in a social activity each day.

Therefore, engaging in a brain stimulating social activity seemed to boost the brain’s plasticity and allowed participants to cope with the brain’s changing behaviour towards dementia in a more positive way.

Dementia prevention #4 Watch what you drink

You may have heard that red wine can be somewhat healthy in small doses. But really, how ‘healthy’ is it?

Those who consume more than thirty units of alcohol per week have the highest risk of hippocampal wasting compared to non-drinkers

Heavy drinking can increase your blood pressure which can disrupt your blood flow and cause damage to your heart. An unhappy heart means an unhappy brain too, because it affects blood flow negatively, which can then lead to possible brain damage.

A recent study has shown just how lethal even moderate drinking can be for our brain development and its structure.

The current government guidelines for ‘safe’ drinking (in other words ‘low risk’ consumption), are no more than 14 units of alcohol per week – ideally spread over the week rather than binge-drinking them. Moderate drinkers, on the other hand, are classified as drinking 14-21 units per week.

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Watch what you drink and start saying no to alcohol if you want to prevent dementia.

If you’re wondering how much one unit of alcohol contain s- it’s 10 ml. 14 units is equivalent to five large glasses of 14 per cent wine.

So, after measuring people’s weekly alcohol intake over the course of 30 years, it was found that those who consume more than thirty units of alcohol per week have the highest risk of hippocampal wasting  compared to non-drinkers.

Even moderate drinkers are three times more likely to have damage in their hippocampus than non-drinkers, says Brennan.

This means alcohol must be very limited as even small doses can increase your risk of dementia.

Dementia prevention #5 Exercise every day, no matter your age

Did you know that exercise not only tones your booty, it’s absolutely essential to your brain’s tone and health too? Indeed, if you want to maintain a healthy brain and keep your 86 billion neurons in check, Brennan suggests exercising every day and not letting age get in the way.

This is easier said than done, but even low to moderate levels of physical activity can help reduce your risk of dementia. Whether you are in your twenties, thirties or your fifties, it has been proven by research to boost your memory learning skills.

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Get physical no matter what age you are, start from now if you haven’t already so you can reduce your risk of dementia.

One particular study looked at younger adults over a seventeen-year period and revealed that those who engaged in physical exercise at the age of 36 and 43 had the lowest decay in memory at the age of 53 compared to those who stopped exercising at 36 who then had less protection against memory decline.

So if you haven’t been generally active throughout your life, there’s no harm in starting from now and including physical activity into your day in order to improve your memory and cognitive function – your later years will thank you.

Dementia prevention #6 Smile: It’s free, simple and boosts brain health

It sounds simple and a bit cliché, and you’re probably wondering what does smiling have to do with dementia?

The serotonin released by your smile also acts as a natural anti-depressant and the endorphins serve as a natural pain reliever, says Brennan

Well, not only does smiling scientifically trigger happiness, the act of smiling itself releases chemicals that make you feel happy.

These chemicals, dopamine, serotonin and endorphins activate reward circuits in your brain which then increase that feeling of happiness, boosting your overall brain health in a positive way. It’s like the happiness you feel when you’re about to gulp down that big chocolate fudge cake. Heaven.

The serotonin released by your smile also acts as a natural anti-depressant and the endorphins serve as a natural pain reliever, says Brennan.

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The act of smiling releases feel good chemicals- so smile more, it’s your best accessory and your brain loves it.

Research has shown that seeing a smiling face does the same trick and can activate the hippocampus which can in turn increase your brain’s memory learning abilities. In order to prevent dementia, seeing a smiling face and the act of smiling can promote optimal brain functioning and optimal neuroplasticity. It also boosts your brain health by releasing hormones that lower your blood pressure, boost your immune function and protect you against stress, anxiety and depression.

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Dr Sabina Brennan is a research psychologist and award winning science communicator. She currently works as a Research Assistant Professor in the Institute of Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin. Her scientific research focuses on understanding dementia risk and protective factors to establish how decline in cognitive function might be prevented or delayed.

For more ways to prevent dementia, check out Brennan’s new book 100 Days To A Younger Brain which provides a life-changing programme that will maximise your memory, boost your brain health and defy dementia by doing one small thing every day.

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