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Dementia: New Year Health MOT

Dementia is the UK’s biggest killer, and one in three people born in the UK today will develop the condition in their lifetime.

Although getting older is the biggest risk factor for dementia, evidence shows there are things you can do to help reduce your own risk.

Alzheimer’s Society has put together top tips to add to your New Year’s resolution list.

1. Get your hearing checked

Studies have shown hearing loss can increase your risk of dementia – you may have read Jeremy Clarkson has been told this recently by his doctor.

Many people start to lose their hearing as they get older, though they may not notice it at first. It’s important to get your hearing tested. You can normally book a free hearing test at your local optician or speak to your GP about being referred to an audiologist. This will show up any hearing issues and provide ways of managing them, such as using a hearing aid. At the very least you’ll be able to hear better and be more involved in conversations, but there’s also evidence that it might reduce your risk of dementia too.

If you are exposed to loud noises for long periods (or have any gigs lined up for 2024!), wear ear protection when necessary.

Eargym, which has been supported by Alzheimer’s Society’s Accelerator Programme, is a digital hearing fitness platform that offers fun and immersive hearing training games, which are designed to challenge and strengthen your hearing skills.

2. Exercise your mind

Giving your brain a workout may help to keep your memory and thinking skills working well for longer. Find activities you enjoy that challenge your brain and do them regularly. There are lots of ways to do this, including reading, playing cards or board games, arts or crafts, or crosswords and other puzzles.

It’s also good to keep learning new skills where you can, such as learning a new language, singing with a local group, or starting a new hobby. You can also become a volunteer with a local charity or activity group. Mixing it up will help you flex your mental muscles.

Pick up a book like ‘Mind Games,’ by Alzheimer’s Society’s Head of Knowledge Dr Tim Beanland, which features 150 puzzles to challenge memory and thinking skills with pictures, words, numbers and logic. With regular practice, they can help to prevent age-related cognitive decline.

3. Socialise

Spending time with loved ones over the festive period may have done more than just raise your spirits! Social activity gives your brain a great workout and may help to reduce your risk of dementia. Ideally this should be in real life, but it can also be good to interact with people online or over the phone too.

Having a conversation with someone can exercise a wide range of your mental skills, for example:

  • actively listening to and communicating with the other person
  • finding the right way to express what you want to say and putting words together in the right order for someone to understand
  • recalling things that have happened which are relevant to what you’re talking about
  • If you got a new calendar or diary for Christmas, why not add in times to spend with the people who matter to you.

4. Get a good night’s sleep

Too many late nights over the festive period? Now is the time to get into a better bedtime routine.

Sleep is important for your mental wellbeing and may reduce your risk of dementia. A good night’s sleep for many people is around seven to eight hours.

Sleep apnoea is a common problem that stops a person breathing normally while they’re asleep. This can prevent enough oxygen getting to the brain and, over time, it may increase the risk of dementia. People who have sleep apnoea often snore heavily and wake up in the middle of the night with a start. They may also start the day with a headache as well as being tired, moody and finding it hard to concentrate.

If you have any problems sleeping well, speak to your GP or check out the NHS webpages on sleep problems.

5. Get moving

A healthy brain relies on a healthy heart, lungs and blood circulation to get enough blood and oxygen. This is why making lifestyle changes that are good for our heart also reduce our risk of dementia.

Research has shown that doing regular physical activity is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of dementia. Ideally a mix of aerobic, strength and balance exercises are best.

You might find it difficult to start being more physically active, so look for an activity you’ll enjoy and will want to keep doing. A workout video you can do at home might suit some people while others find it easier to do group activities like hiking. They can also be a great way to connect and interact with other people.

You might find it helpful to start off with a small amount of activity and then build up gradually.

6. Eat healthier

The festive period sees many overindulge, which can lead people to want to start the New Year trying to lose a lot of weight quickly. Most health professionals don’t recommend doing this. For one thing, no one needs to eat different foods or take supplements to ‘detox’ after a period of over-indulgence. Our bodies will do that all by themselves. And most people who start a crash diet involving drastic changes don’t lose any weight or, if they do, it comes back very quickly after stopping – which most people do after a few days or weeks. Instead, nutrition scientists and dietitians recommend making gradual but lasting changes to what you eat and drink so that you feel healthier, happier and reduce your risk of getting ill.

Eating a healthy, balanced diet may reduce your risk of dementia as well as other health conditions including cancer, diabetes, stroke and heart disease. By eating a range of different foods in the right proportions you are more likely to get all the nutrients you need for your brain to stay healthy.

There is some evidence that eating a Mediterranean-style diet can reduce the risk of developing problems with memory and thinking, and getting some forms of dementia. This means adding more fruit, vegetables and cereals to your shopping basket, and leaving out red meat and sugary foods.

7. Quit smoking

If you smoke, you’re putting yourself at a much higher risk of developing dementia later in life.

Smoking does a lot of harm to the circulation of blood around the body, particularly the blood vessels in the brain, as well as the heart and lungs. In addition, toxins in cigarette smoke cause inflammation and stress to cells, which have both been linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s never too late to quit smoking. However, the earlier you stop, the greater the benefits for your health.

8. Cut down on booze

Drinking too much alcohol increases your risk of developing dementia.

If you regularly drink alcohol, try to do so in moderation and within recommended limits. Binging on booze exposes your brain to high levels of harmful chemicals.

Try to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol each week. This is equal to about one pint of beer or a small glass of wine each day. If you regularly drink much more than this, you are increasing your risk of harming your brain and other organs, and so increasing your risk of dementia.

Set yourself goals for 2024 such as deciding on and sticking to a weekly alcohol limit, alternating alcoholic drinks with beverages such as cola, water or juice, or trying low-alcohol or alcohol-free drinks.

Alzheimer’s Society vows to help end the devastation caused by dementia, providing help and hope for everyone affected. If you’re worried about dementia, call 0333 150 3456, or visit alzheimers.org.uk

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