Tuesday 26 June 2012

Five-a-day to keep dementia away?

Fish pie - Brain food?
Fish pie - Brain food?
One of the things I am most frequently asked is how do you prevent getting dementia? People who have seen how this disease eventually ravages a person would do anything to avoid getting it, and those who have no first-hand experience, but then hear about my father’s physical and mental decline, are generally keen to avoid developing dementia.

Sadly there is no magic solution to prevent getting this disease. The healthiest and most physically and mentally active can still develop some form of dementia during their lives. My father is a prime example of this: he was a very active, hard-working man with a healthy outdoor lifestyle, who very rarely smoked his pipe and only occasionally enjoyed alcohol. Prior to developing dementia he was not over-weight, and had a healthy diet with lots of fruit and vegetables.

The tipping point, in my father’s case, was retirement. His previously busy life as a farmer suddenly stopped; the adjustment coincided with him losing interest in some of his hobbies and his life became more sedentary. The huge mental upheaval of no longer being a working man took its toll, and where his life had previously been about the dawn-till-dusk responsibilities and expectations of tending his animals, he was suddenly as free as a bird. Sadly, however, he never found his wings within this new existence.

Very gradually the type of vascular dementia known as multi-infarct dementia (which is caused by a series of small strokes), set in. These strokes were so tiny that for a long time dad never reported any change in how he felt, even though the strokes had begun to wreak havoc in his brain, and by the time symptoms of what we now know was dad’s dementia were very obvious, damage had occurred, and would continue to for many years before he finally had a diagnosis.

Other relatives in dad’s care home also reported that their loved ones had led healthy and active lives prior to developing dementia, so is there any answer to the question of how to avoid the big D?

Given my interest and research into this subject over many years, and the expert advice, studies and tips I see on a daily basis as part of my job, I would love to report that there is a fail-safe way to avoid developing dementia. To date this has not been found though, and however well people can live with this disease, and I truly believe they can with personalised, therapeutic care in community settings that value, support and embrace them as a person, there will obviously never be a substitute for prevention.

I am not medically trained, but I absorb all the information available and one of the most powerful messages is the one reminding us that what is good for the heart is also good for the brain. I am a great believer in fresh, wholesome food, rich in fruit and vegetables, low in dairy and with meat and fish in moderation. In short, the key to our food and drink intake seems to be about maintaining a good 20% acid/80% alkaline balance.

I avoid processed, ready prepared, or take away meals, always cook from raw ingredients (including staple items like bread), and never touch anything with additives in it. I would rather have a teaspoon of raw cane sugar than anything with so much as a particle of artificial sweetener in it. In fact, in all three of my father’s care homes, where they offered residents squash (laden with artificial sweeteners) throughout the day, we banned them from feeding this to my father and brought him in pure fruit smoothies instead. We firmly believe that the nutrition within those drinks (especially considering that he could eat very few fruits raw due to his swallowing problems), helped his body to recover from the dozens of chest and bladder infections that he endured during the last few years of his life, proving what I wrote about here, that good nutrition is vital to not only preventing dementia but helping those already living with it to have a better quality of life.

I exercise as much as I can (I could always do better), am a big believer in natural (non-chemical) skincare, get as much rest and relaxation as my schedule will allow, and try to keep a healthy work/life balance. If giving the brain a good workout is as beneficial as we are lead to believe, then mine certainly gets a daily dose of that due to my job, and I have no desire to retire, which in the case of my generation is probably just as well! I have never smoked, rarely drink, never touch Coca Cola or the like, and confess to being addicted to water. Wherever possible I also source alternatives to pharmaceutical preparations, something I think most pharmaceutical companies would prefer isn’t encouraged. The only thing I do struggle to influence is the pollution in the atmosphere, which I would be the first to admit is very bad for you.

When my father was initially diagnosed with dementia, we sought the advice of one of the leading old-age psychiatrists treating him to find out her view on what could be done to prevent dementia. She recommended a ginkgo biloba supplement, while other advice I have read more recently suggests supplementing with B vitamins can help to keep the brain healthy. There are literally hundreds of studies out there suggesting positive associations between good brain health and different supplements or foods. What to believe is always the main problem, but my feeling on all things is generally that moderation is the key.

Granted we all have our own choices to make, our own lives to lead and face the consequences of our actions as a result. Whether mine or my family’s choices will make it any less likely that we will develop dementia only time will tell, but I firmly believe that anything that keeps you healthier generally is at least a step in the right direction.

Until next time...

Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886

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