Melody Teh


What you need to know about dementia

What you need to know about dementia

Dr Nicola Gates is a Clinical Neuropsychologist whose PhD and ongoing research examines dementia prevention and optimising health and wellbeing, which she translates into in her Sydney based private practice.   

Dementia is a deadly disease. It is the second highest killer of Australian adults and has killed three of my grandparents. They lived a long time and as a population we are all living longer and increasing age is the biggest risk factor for dementia with those aged over age 85 years having almost 50:50 odds of developing the disease syndrome.

Dementia is not a single disease – it is a catch all term for a number of different neuropathological diseases that cause a deterioration in brain function and impact upon our ability to perform everyday tasks. Cognitive difficulties include reduced memory, poor thinking, limited language, problem solving difficulties and changes in personality and behaviour, which get steadily worse. However, there are different types of dementia which vary according to underlying neuropathological disease or cause.

The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s and makes up 50 to 75 per cent of all dementia cases. The next most common type is Vascular dementia due to cerebrovascular disease, followed by Fronto-temporal dementia and dementia with Lewy Bodies. There are multiple other dementia syndromes such as Parkinson’s Dementia, HIV dementia, and Alcohol-related dementia to name a few, but they all cause irreversible damage to the brain and deterioration in function.

Reduce your risks

As a clinical neuropsychologist and neuroscientist, and given my family history, I am particularly focused upon the prevention of neurocognitive disease. Research consistently suggests that there are multiple factors that contribute to dementia risk, and importantly reduce its risk. International studies repeatedly indicate that seven lifestyle factors may contribute 40 per cent of the risks for dementia – or that 1 in 3 cases may be prevented. The World Alzheimer report investigates lifespan and lifestyle factors to reduce risk and delay onset. 

Being healthy and enjoying a healthy lifestyle of regular exercise and eating a highly nutritious diet is only part of the story. Other factors involved include not smoking, healthy blood pressure, good levels of cholesterol, and a lifespan of mental activity.   

Through my research and as outlined in my book A Brain For Life I have broadly classified various dementia risk reduction strategies into four steps as outlined below.

1. Keep your body healthy

A healthy body will support a healthy brain as the body and brain share the same blood and oxygen. The adult brain takes approximately 25 per cent of the nutritional value we get from food so a diverse nutritious diet is essential. Additionally, we are increasingly understanding the interplay between keeping weight, blood pressure and cholesterol within healthy range and dementia risks, along with managing diabetes and keeping the heart fit and strong through exercise. Interestingly, new research is also suggesting that we need to have a healthy gut too, as our gut influences our mind, stress, response, immunity and brain growth.

2. Exercise your brain 

The brain thrives on novelty and challenge as stimulating experiences increase brain growth which in turn increase the brain’s resilience. Any kind of activity that involves cognitive effort such as learning new information, problem solving or creativity increases brain and cognitive reserve. Think of challenging hobbies, educational programs, and games like bridge or mah-jong, learning a language or musical instrument, travel, socialising and simply attending or engaging in local activities or clubs.

3. Keep your brain safe

In order to keep our brain healthy we also need to reduce the threats such as cigarette smoking, along with risk of brain injury and mental illness. Whilst we understand that cigarette use is bad for our general health it may surprise people to know that smoking is a serious risk factor for dementia. Falling is a major risk for brain injury as we get older and one thing to reduce falling is actually to keep fit and strong. Lastly research indicates that while well managed depression may not be a risk factor, chronic high levels of stress and depression appear to increase risk.

4. Cultivate a positive mind

A positive outlook – thinking the glass is half full – has been shown to have multiple health benefits including less illness and increased longevity. Studies indicate that a positive mind is also linked with an increase in positive health choices and more social connections guaranteeing a positive cycle for optimal health.

Remember that a healthy brain will support a healthy body and healthy mind, and together reduce the risk of dementia.

Click here to purchase Nicole Gate’s A Brain for Life: How to Optimise Your Brain Health by Making Simple Lifestyle Changes Now. 

Related links: 

16 things I would want, if I get dementia

Beautiful poem captures the pain of Alzheimer’s

This mobile game is helping fight dementia

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