What really protects against dementia?


Salmon: protecting the brain?

If there’s one disease that sends a shiver down people’s spines in the modern world, it’s dementia. In a society where we place so much value on intelligence and autonomy, the thought of losing our memories, our ability to think and to look after ourselves is frightening.

This fear is behind some of the commissions that have come my way recently. What’s the best diet to prevent dementia? Can exercise protect your brain from ageing? Can we ‘catch’ Alzheimer’s disease? (No, not directly from another person. Proteins associated with Alzheimers may have been transmitted during some medical procedures.)

There’s one key caveat behind all of these features: there’s no surefire way of preventing dementia. There’s not even a clear explanation for why it happens, although there are plenty of theories. I know people – including my own grandmother – who ate a healthy diet, exercised regularly, had great social networks and were crossword fiends, yet who still succumbed.

However, my research has yielded five top tips based on decent evidence. They don’t guarantee a dementia-free old age. But they may reduce your chances from suffering from this frightening disease.

  1. Keep your blood pressure healthy. High blood pressure seems linked to an increased risk of dementia. This could be because high blood pressure causes mini-strokes (transient ischaemic attacks) which damage brain cells.
  2. Take regular exercise. Physical activity seems to have a protective effect against dementia, although it’s not clear why. One theory is that is improves the flow of blood and oxygen to your brain.
  3. Eat a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of vegetables, wholemeal, fruit, berries and oily fish. A diet that’s good for the heart seems to be good for the brain, too.
  4. Don’t smoke; it kills brain cells. Enough said.
  5. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Heavy drinking poisons the brain as well as the liver.


Exercise in middle age ‘stops your brain shrinking’. NHS Choices, February 2016

Can a diet prevent dementia? WebMD, February 2016

The Alzheimers Society does a good job of putting new research into context and has useful information about evidence for ways to reduce risk of dementia.


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