FCA logo

Caregiver Health: Can a Change in Lifestyle Help Prevent Dementia?

A few months ago, Amy’s mom passed away after living with Alzheimer’s for nearly five years.  Since the day of her mother’s diagnosis, Amy has lived in fear of one day receiving a dementia diagnosis of her own.  While Amy took pride in being able to care for her mother as her memory failed, the pain of her own mother not recognizing her and becoming angry over seemingly menial tasks still lingers. Now, Amy is determined to do everything she can to help prevent one day being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. While the exact cause of dementia is not fully understood, many researchers believe that dementia is typically caused by a combination of factors including aging, lifestyle and genetics. As the disease progresses, brain cells are damaged and killed, causing fewer connections among brain cells than in a typically functioning brain and over time leads to overall brain shrinkage. (Mayo Clinic, “Alzheimer’s disease: Causes”.)  Caregivers like Amy know all too well the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s for both individuals suffering from the disease, and their loved ones, yet they rarely know what they can do to potentially reduce their own chances of a similar diagnosis later in life.

Altering Your Lifestyle to Reduce Dementia Risk

Family caregivers are often primarily focused on the health and wellbeing of others.  In between getting your mom to her doctor’s appointments and stopping by to help her prepare dinner and bathe, when are you supposed to get to the gym? While finding the time to focus on oneself in the midst of caregiving may sound impossible the benefits of placing some focus on your own health can be significant.  Recent research has found that diet and exercise may have an impact on an individual’s risk of developing dementia.

Moderate to heavy exercise . . . can lead to reduced risk of dementia by increasing blood flow and oxygen to the brain.  Individuals who take part in moderate intensity activities typically have a lesser risk of depression and brain shrinkage, leaving your mind and body in better shape.  Realistically, many caregivers won’t find time to go to the gym every day, so consider trying to fit in a 30-minute walk (see our recent “30 Minute Strategy” blog post), a few times each week or spend some extra time doing yard work; even changes as simple as taking the stairs can have a positive impact on caregiver health. As an official “Team Member” with the Go4Life Campaign,™ Family Caregiver Alliance is partnered with the National Institute on Aging to help reach out to older adults and help them become physically active. Visit the site for health benefits, motivational tips and goal-setting ideas that can help you get your loved one more active.

Integrating Vitamin E-rich foods into your diet . . . may also help reduce dementia risk. Vitamin E itself is an anti-oxidant that may positively affect brain health. Try eating foods high in Vitamin E such as nuts and seeds or their oils as well as green vegetables such as broccoli and spinach.

Replacing meat with fish a few times each week . . . will increase your intake of poly unsaturated Omega-3 Fatty Acids, which in turn should raise the body’s level of DHA. Low levels of DHA, known by the formal name of docosahexaenoic acid, have been shown to contribute to reduced mental function. However, consuming foods with DHA, such as fish up to 2 times per week may help increase your levels of DHA and, overall, reduce the risk for dementia. Researchers are continuing to examine the link between nutrition and the onset of dementia and looking at the benefits of eating habits like the Mediterranean diet, which is high in fish, legume, fruit, and vegetable intake while remaining low in red-meat intake. An article reporting on a 2006 study by Dr. Nikolaos Scarmeas of the University of Columbia notes that New York seniors whose diet resembled Mediterranean eating habits had a nearly 40% lower rate of Alzheimer’s disease. While findings linking the relationship between nutrition and dementia are promising for caregivers like Amy who fear one day being the care recipient instead of the caregiver, there is no surefire way presently to prevent the onset of dementia.  However,  adopting a healthier lifestyle―which reduces your risk of developing dementia― will help improve your health enabling you to continue caring for others so they can feel better too.

Share with us:  Leave a comment and let us know what you’ve done to improve your own health in the midst of caring for others. Additional sources referenced: CNN Health, “How Can Nutrition Help Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease” WebMD: “Mediterranean Diet May Cut Alzheimer’s”