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Women’s brain health: preventing dementia

Find out the latest findings on women’s brain health, including lowering your risk for developing age-related dementia.

Your lifestyle has a significant impact on brain health. Your diet, physical activity, social connections, sleep and stress levels all contribute to the function of your brain. Although, you can’t completely eliminate your chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, you can reduce your risk by maintaining certain healthy lifestyle habits that are good for both your body and brain.

What is dementia?

Dementia is not a specific disease, but rather an umbrella term that describes a group of symptoms associated with a deterioration of cognitive function that impacts daily activities. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for approximately 60 percent of all dementia cases, but there are other causes. Vascular dementia, which occurs following a stroke, is the second most common cause of dementia. Other causes include vitamin deficiencies, depression, dehydration, infection and a Parkinson’s-like disease called Lewy body dementia.

Symptoms of dementia can vary, but typically include at least two deficiencies in these mental functions:

  • Memory
  • Language
  • Reasoning and judgment
  • Visual perception
  • Ability to pay attention

According to the World Health Organization, there are nearly 50 million individuals who are living with dementia worldwide, and this number is expected to increase to 75 million by 2030.

Maintaining brain health for life

Although there is still much to be learned about brain health and why some individuals develop dementia and others don’t, there is significant evidence that lifestyle plays an important role. The following are some healthy lifestyle habits that can help protect your brain for life.

Minimize cardiovascular risk factors

Your brain is closely linked to your heart by a complex network of blood vessels. Thus, anything that is damaging blood vessels within your body can damage blood vessels in your brain. Structural brain changes due to stroke are directly linked to vascular dementia, and they may be contributing factors in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

You can protect your brain by taking the same steps necessary to protect your cardiovascular system. These include not smoking, managing blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar, and maintaining a healthy weight. Regular physical activity can also help by increasing blood and oxygen flow to the brain. In fact, a recent study published by the American Academy of Neurology showed that women with a high level of midlife fitness were 88 percent less likely to develop dementia than those who were moderately fit, and those highly fit women who did develop dementia experienced the onset of the condition 11 years later on average than those with medium fitness levels.

“Everything that helps prevent heart disease and stroke may be beneficial in preventing Alzheimer’s,” says Dr. Richard Libman, Chief, Vascular Neurology, Northwell Health Institute for Neurology and Neurosurgery. “On one hand, stroke can cause dementia, totally separate from Alzheimer’s, but stroke may also worsen the effect of Alzheimer’s. Getting cardiovascular risk factors under control is one way we can help reduce our chance of developing Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.”

Focus on sleep and stress reduction

Both chronic sleep problems and stress may increase the buildup in the brain of an abnormal protein called beta-amyloid plaque, which is associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Getting sufficient sleep and managing stress can be another important way to reduce age-related dementia.

Stay connected

Spending time with friends, family and others is good for brain health. By enjoying conversation, maintaining social ties and interacting with those in your community, you may be able to slow the rate of memory decline.

Don’t ignore symptoms

Most forms of dementia are progressive and get worse over time. If you or a loved one is experiencing signs of cognitive decline, don’t ignore them. See your doctor as soon as possible to determine the cause. In some cases, evaluation and testing can identify a treatable cause. And, if the symptoms indicate Alzheimer’s, early diagnosis provides the best opportunities for treatment.

Learn more about brain health and minimizing your chance of developing dementia. At Katz Institute for Women’s Health, we’re here to answer your questions. Call the Katz Institute for Women’s Health Resource Center at 855-850-5494 to speak to a women’s health specialist.

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