Monday 1 September 2014

Can we reduce the risk?

September is World Alzheimer’s Month (#WAM2014), an international campaign to raise awareness and challenge stigma that is led by Alzheimer’s Disease International. For 2014, the focus is on ways to reduce the risk of developing dementia with brain friendly lifestyles.

Reduction and prevention of dementia are two very interesting topics. Ever since I began this blog and my wider work, I’ve met people from all walks of life who’ve heard my dad’s story and then asked me what they can do to ensure that they don’t develop a type of dementia.  Based on that, you’d assume that it would be something I’d have written about extensively, but reduction and prevention of dementia don’t seem to make for very popular copy.

In 2012 I wrote ‘Five-a-day to keep dementia away?’ and aside from touching on prevention and reduction in relation to other areas of dementia policy and care, that is the sum total of my writing on these topics to date. It seems that when I’m actively involved in face-to-face discussions, people are genuinely interested in any tips I might have that could help them avoid developing dementia, but there isn’t much appetite for reading about it, despite the fact that dementia is said to be the most feared disease for the over 50’s.

The people who are most actively interested in preventative advice are usually those who’ve been so deeply personally affected by a particular disease that they would do anything to avoid either developing it themselves or seeing other family members living with it. That is certainly true for us as a family. 

My childhood was full of general messages about healthy lifestyles, all of which have stood me in very good stead as an adult. Those messages weren’t linked to avoiding dementia, it was just good advice. Only in the aftermath of my dad’s diagnosis did my mum ask one of his consultants what measures she could take to try and avoid developing dementia. The advice, for what it’s worth, was to take Gingko Biloba.

Gingko, like everything from coconut oil to vitamin D, has been linked to reduction and prevention of dementia. I don’t want to get into the science behind the various claims and counterclaims – I would argue that anything healthy at moderate levels is the common sense approach, but I am not medically or scientifically qualified to take that theory any further.

Ultimately, of course, we are all responsible for ourselves. Prevention of any disease comes with it elements of sacrifice. No one has ever said that eating rubbish, drinking to excess, smoking 50-a-day and never taking exercise is good for you. Some people may be able to go through life like that and live to a ripe age without a complaint in the world, but most of us can’t, and who wants to take the risk that they are in the majority? Sadly far too many people it seems.

Moderation is necessary in all things related to lifestyle, along with education, common sense, an immunity to persuasive advertising campaigns and a basic sense of responsibility to yourself and your loved ones. From the perspective of a healthy lifestyle, this translates in very general terms to:  

  • Eating a little of what you fancy does you good, but a lot is likely to give you problems. If it comes out of a packet rather than out of a field, be particularly suspicious.
  • Most people can enjoy an occasional social drink without any problems, but anything beyond that will probably be killing off too many brain cells. In other words, a glass may be ok, but a bottle isn’t.
  • If you were meant to smoke, you would have been given a chimney in your head (a gem from my parents that was regularly mentioned around the meal table during my childhood – to this day I have never even tried a cigarette).
  • Humans were designed to exercise, and as much as some of us may dislike it (myself included!) we are sadly going to have to accept that fact and find something active to do that makes exercise as enjoyable as possible (and let’s face it there are LOADS of options, disliking the gym isn’t an excuse.)
Ultimately healthy genes and a good standard of living where you are knowledgeable, in decent housing, not living in food poverty and have access to outside spaces for recreation are also necessary, it’s just that they are rarely talked about because they touch on big social issues that aren’t entirely comfortable for policy makers. 
On a personal level, the most precious skill my parents (mostly my mum) ever taught me was the ability to cook (the joy of cooking with my dad’s home-grown fruits and vegetables was a particular highlight). Making healthy, nutritious meals is the sort of daily life skill that many adults who live off of processed and packaged food would benefit from, and I count myself exceptionally fortunate that I love cooking. That early education from my mum and dad is the essence of good parenting. I was very lucky – others sadly aren’t.
I predict that during this year’s World Alzheimer's Month we will see a lot of coverage given to the idea that ‘What’s good for your heart is good for your head’. A great slogan that is yet to really seep into the public consciousness, but maybe September 2014 is the month when some real traction will be given to the vitally important and still greatly neglected reduction and prevention agenda.
World Alzheimer's Month 2014 - Graphic from Alzheimer's Disease International

I love this graphic from Alzheimer’s Disease International for #WAM2014 with five great tips that we can all try to achieve:
  • Look after your heart
  • Be physically active
  • Follow a healthy diet
  • Challenge your brain
  • Enjoy social activity
For my part, I’m going to start my latest exercise regime – trying to meet the NHS target of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week with additional muscle strengthening exercise. I’ve failed with so many exercise regimes, but with renewed enthusiasm I will try to get fitter and reduce my own risk of dementia and other health problems.
Carpe diem – Seize the day!
Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886


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