Dementia is an umbrella term for a collection of symptoms associated with brain damage by diseases, which tends to affect people over the age of 65, although it is not a natural part of ageing. While there is no certain way to ward off dementia, research is increasingly suggesting a healthy lifestyle can help reduce a person’s risk of developing dementia. The growing consensus among experts is that what is good heart is also good for the brain, which also means the dietary decisions that are bad for the heart may also be harmful for the brain.
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High-salt intake, which can send a person’s blood pressure reading soaring and raise the risk of developing cardiovascular complications, is a good example.
Further supporting evidence that what is good for the heart is also good for the brain, a new study published in Nature showed that a high-salt diet may impair cognitive function by causing a deficiency of the compound nitric oxide, which is vital for maintaining vascular health in the brain, according to Weill Cornell Medicine researchers.
The investigators sought to understand the series of events that occur between salt consumption and poor cognition and concluded that lowering salt intake and maintaining healthy blood vessels in the brain may “stave off” dementia.
“Our study proposes a new mechanism by which salt mediates cognitive impairment and also provides further evidence of a link between dietary habits and cognitive function,” said lead study author Dr. Giuseppe Faraco, an assistant professor of research in neuroscience in the Feil Family Brain and Mind Research Institute at Weill Cornell Medicine.
The new study advances research published last year in Nature Neuroscience by Dr. Faraco and senior author Dr. Costantino Iadecola, director of the Feil Family Brain and Mind Research Institute and the Anne Parrish Titzell Professor of Neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine.
The 2018 study found that a high-salt diet caused dementia in mice, showing that the rodents became unable to complete daily living tasks such as building their nests and had problems passing memory tests.
After ruling out the theory that high salt intake was restricting blood flow in the mice, the researchers posited that high salt consumption may cause tau proteins in the brain to become unstable.
The protein tau is known to form tangles in the areas of the brain important for memory and then move through the brain as symptoms progress, and increasing evidence suggests this process may be an underlying trigger of brain decline.
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Although further research on salt intake and cognition in humans is needed, the current mouse study is a further warning sign to regulate salt consumption, Dr. Iadecola said.
He continued: “And the stuff that is bad for us doesn’t come from a saltshaker, it comes from processed food and restaurant food.
“We’ve got to keep salt in check. It can alter the blood vessels of the brain and do so in a vicious way.”
In addition to high-salt consumption, inactivity is another risk factor for heart disease that may also increase a person’s risk of developing dementia.
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As the NHS explains: “A lack of regular physical activity can increase your risk of heart disease, becoming overweight or obese, and type 2 diabetes – all of which are risk factors for dementia.”
As the health body notes, older adults who don’t exercise are also more likely to have problems with memory or thinking (known as cognitive abilities).
It recommends aiming for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, such as brisk walking, cycling or dancing, and you should also do strengthening exercises twice a week, such as gardening or yoga to reduce your risk.
The result of an analysis of 11 studies investigating the link between middle-aged people and the effects of physical exercise on their thinking and memory in later life found that underlines the importance of regular exercise in reducing the risk of developing dementia.
As Alzheimers UK reports, the findings show that regular exercise can significantly reduce the risk of developing dementia by about 30 percent, and for Alzheimer’s disease specifically, the risk was reduced by 45 percent.
One particular study looked at health behaviours of over 2,000 men in Wales, and followed them for 35 years.
Of the five behaviours that were assessed (regular exercise, not smoking, moderate alcohol intake, healthy body weight and healthy diet), exercise had the greatest effect in terms of reducing dementia risk.
Overall, people who followed four or five of the above behaviours were up to 60 percent less likely to develop dementia.
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