Living a long time is something most of us would like to do. We want to be around as long as possible in the world. No one wants to think of not living long enough to be able to do all the things we want to do and spend as long as possible with the ones we love.
But living long is only half the picture. We want to live well for as long as possible. We want life in our years, as well as years in our lives. Living a long time but being sick and unable to do the things we enjoy is not at all ideal.
People are living longer than ever before. And with that comes growth in some of the diseases that occur more in older people. One of those is dementia, sometimes called senility. As people get older, the chances of developing dementia increase.
Dementia is a thing that scares us. It certainly scares me. I really hate the idea of losing my thoughts or my ability to think, or being unable to recognise family members. Dementia is not a single disease. It’s actually an umbrella term, used to describe a group of conditions that affect how well our brains work. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which around two thirds of people with dementia have.
According to Alzheimer’s New Zealand, dementia is one of our country’s most significant and growing healthcare challenges. Around 60,000 Kiwi adults have dementia, and that number is expected to almost triple by 2050.
Dementia also has a wide impact beyond sufferers. An Alzheimer’s New Zealand survey found that two out of every three New Zealanders know or have known someone with dementia.
It’s not known specifically what causes dementia. It’s thought to be the result of a combination of factors, including genetics, age and environment. But there are some things we can do to reduce our risk of developing the disease.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, what helps our brains stay well are things that help us stay well in general. Getting regular exercise, not smoking, limiting alcohol intake and following a healthy diet are all important.
The general rule is what’s good for your heart is good for your brain, too. There’s good evidence that eating a Mediterranean-style diet can reduce the risk of developing some forms of dementia. That means lots of plants, a little meat and fish, legumes and pulses, and healthy fats from olive and vegetable oils, avocado, nuts and seeds, and whole grains – basically, the pattern of good, healthy eating that we all know.
A couple of other lifestyle factors are important in lowering risk – and it’s interesting to me that these are also key characteristics of the world’s healthiest and longest-lived populations.
The first is keeping our brains active and challenged; stretching our minds with reading, puzzles and crosswords can help build new brain cells and strengthen the connections between them. The other is social engagement. We need contact with other people and the stimulation that provides. Being actively engaged with our community, family and friends can stimulate our brain reserves. It also makes us feel good, helping to reduce the risk of depression.
So, there’s no real secret to keeping our brains healthy. If we remember they’re part of our bodies, it’s easy to see that it makes sense to do whatever we can to keep our whole selves – bodies and brains – well looked after. That way we’ll have the best possible chance of living life to the full, right up until our last day.
Ten warning signs of dementia
Early diagnosis means early access to support, management and future planning.
- Recent memory loss that affects daily life: Forgetfulness is normal but a person with dementia may repeat questions or have trouble remembering conversations
- Difficulty performing regular tasks: May have trouble driving a familiar route
- Problems with language: Forgetting the odd word is normal but difficulty following or starting conversation or mixing up words can be a symptom of dementia
- Disorientation of time and place: Confusion about the time of day and what to do at that time, eg. eating breakfast at dinner time
- Decreased or poor judgement: Making bad decisions more frequently and paying less attention to physical appearance
- Problems with complex tasks: Difficulty keeping track of finances or planning and cooking meals
- Misplacing things: Misplacing things is normal but repeatedly putting things in inappropriate places can be a symptom
- Changes in mood and behaviour: Rapid mood swings for no apparent reason or difficulty dealing with stress
- Relating to others: Suddenly more outspoken or less considerate, or socially withdrawn and unconfident
- Loss of initiative: Losing interest in things you enjoyed doing.
Source: Alzheimers New Zealand
Other HFG articles you might find useful
Food on the brain: Find out how diet plays a part in the development of Alzheimer’s – and what you can do about it
Eat to cheat brain ageing: Learn what to eat to upgrade your brain power
Caring for Alzheimer’s sufferers
Author: Rosie Stern
It is not only important to know what foods support slowing down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, but also to know how to make these foods available to the person suffering from the disease. This is because maintaining good nutrition for people with this condition presents challenges since they may:
- Experience a loss of appetite
- Develop an insatiable appetite or a craving for sweets
- Forget to eat and drink
- Forget how to chew or swallow
- Experience a dry mouth or mouth discomfort
- Be unable to recognise the food and drink they are given.
As a carer, you might try the following:
- Use an alarm clock or phone call to remind a relative of a mealtime
- Have snacks on hand that are easy to eat, like finger foods that do not require cutlery
- Choose foods that don’t need to be refrigerated and can be left out where they can be easily seen, such as crispbreads with Vegemite, soft fruits in a bowl covered with plastic wrap, cubes of hard cheese, and covered glasses of juice
- Make meals a shared social occasion
- Make use of preprepared meals such as meals-on-wheels or frozen meals from supermarkets; stock up on healthy snacks such as yoghurt, cheese or dried fruit
- Put music on during mealtimes; older people often enjoy familiar music while they are eating.