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While dementia in it’s various forms is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, recent studies have provided evidence that rates of dementia are going down. Dementia may be influenced in part by a person’s genetics, however, researchers are looking toward environmental factors as a major influence on this recent decrease. These factors include rising levels of education and better practices and treatments related to heart and brain health.
The decline in rates of dementia fits optimistically within the history of modern medicine. In the mid-19th century, tuberculosis seemed to be an incurable condition. Yet through policy reform, improved standards of living, and medical advances, it is much less prevalent today. In a similar way, if we can identify the particular environmental factors that influence rates of dementia, we can encourage better living practices and continue to see a decline in dementia.
Here are a few of the most common environmental factors that may increase a person’s risk for dementia.
Any impact to the head that disrupts normal brain function is considered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Falls, vehicle crashes, and sports injuries are the most common ways a person can sustain a TBI. The potential downsides of traumatic brain injury has come to the forefront in recent years, as studies have started to show how detrimental football field concussions can be. This awareness has led the National Football League to adopt stricter regulations and push towards further safety equipment innovations that could lead to safer play in years to come.
The immediate effects may include unconsciousness, difficulty recalling the incident, short term memory problems, trouble speaking, confusion, and problems with hearing or vision. And while these symptoms may only be temporary, depending on the severity of the injury, a TBI can have the long-lasting effect of doubling or quadrupling someone’s chance of developing dementia.
Light to moderate alcohol consumption may actually be good for a person’s health. Positive effects include the potential of lowering the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and dementia. However, heavy drinkers are more susceptible to alcohol-related anxiety and types of alcohol-related dementia caused by a thiamine deficiency and poor overall nutrition.
The most common form of alcohol-related dementia, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, often involves mental confusion, paralysis of the nerves that move the eyes, difficulty with muscle coordination, and problems with memory and learning. It’s possible these damages will be permanent and a person will require life-long custodial care. Though if this condition is recognized early enough, some of the effects can be reversed if the affected person stops drinking and begins following a balanced diet.
Smoking tobacco causes blood vessels to narrow in the brain and heart that can deprive cells of oxygen and nutrients. The nicotine in cigarette smoke raises a person’s heart rate and blood pressure, which can lead to a stroke and vascular dementia. Exposure to secondhand smoke may also increase the risk of dementia.
Fine particles in the air have been suspected of contributing to neurodegeneration, leading to dementia. These air pollutants often come from factories, traffic, dust storms, pollen, and wildfires. Most weather forecasts include reports on local air quality, which can help people to avoid excess exposure to outdoor pollutants. However, it’s also important to maintain clean air indoors by minimizing dust, fumes from cleaning supplies, and pet dander.
Lack of Exercise
Regular cardiovascular exercise increases the flow of blood and oxygen in the brain, which can prevent vascular dementia caused by strokes. According to the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation, physical exercise can reduce a person’s risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease by 50 percent. In order to earn this benefit, they recommend a total of 150 minutes per week of cardio and strength training.
Along with physical exercise, mental exercise can reduce a person’s risk of developing dementia by up to 70 percent. This could involve anything that challenges a person’s brain, such as reading, filling out crossword puzzles, drawing maps from memory, learning a foreign language, playing a musical instrument, memorizing song lyrics, drawing, scrapbooking, and playing checkers, card games, and a number of online games and apps that offer a mental workout.
Certain food choices can decrease or increase an individual’s risk of developing dementia. For example, too much red meat can cause a buildup of iron in the brain which can speed the onset of dementia. Other foods that have been linked to dementia include processed cheeses, smoked meats, microwave popcorn, and refined grains in some pastas, bread, and rice.
In looking for foods with positive effects, eating fruits, veggies, berries, nuts, omega-3 fatty acids found in some fish, and folic acid supplements can help lower your risk of developing dementia and other conditions associated with poor cognitive function. Specific diets like the Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet have been highlighted for their ability to reduce a person’s chances of developing high blood pressure and dementia by up to 54 percent.
Considering each of these environmental factors, there are some practical things we can all do to potentially decrease our risk of dementia. Avoiding head injuries, abstaining from tobacco and alcohol use, minimizing our exposure to air pollution, eating properly and exercising regularly can help anyone to live a full, healthy life long into old age. If we do our best to prevent exposure to common, harmful circumstances, we could significantly decrease our individual risk of developing dementia and contribute to an ongoing decline in the condition.