Dementia is a cruel disease that robs people of their memory, their judgement and their identity. Unfortunately, there is no cure, and in the past few years a number of clinical trials for new dementia drugs have failed – the latest being Biogen’s drug aducanumab. Without any effective treatments on the horizon, most people’s best hope is to avoid getting dementia in the first place.
One of the hallmarks of dementia is cognitive decline. There are several lifestyle changes that may slow cognitive decline, such as doing mentally stimulating activities (crossword puzzles, learning a new language), getting plenty of exercise and maintaining a healthy diet – especially one low in saturated fats, refined carbohydrates and sugar.
Of these, diet is a favourite among health reporters, perhaps because the message can be delivered clearly and succinctly. The latest such story comes from the Daily Mirror which claims that eating just two teaspoons of nuts a day “boosts brain function by 60%”. If the claim is true, we should all be rushing out to buy a bag of nuts, but is this what the study actually says?
The article is based on an observational study published in the Journal of Nutrition Health and Aging. After assessing the diets of nearly 5,000 adults in China (aged 55 and older) over a period of nine years, the researchers found an inverse relationship between the amount of nuts people ate and the degree of cognitive decline they experienced. Those who consumed more than 10g of nuts and seeds a day were less likely to show a fall in their cognitive function compared with those who consumed less than 10g a day.
Out of the 4,822 participants in the study, 67% had their cognitive ability tested twice (only 16% were tested more than twice over the course of the study). Where more than one cognitive measurement was made, cognitive performance decreased over time, but people who ate more than 10g of nuts per day decreased the likelihood of this decline. Consequently, the results suggest that consuming two teaspoons of nuts per day may preserve cognitive performance and may lead to better cognitive ageing over a lifetime. The results do not show that eating nuts improves cognitive function, as the Mirror headline claimed.
Participants in the study inevitably varied on a number of factors, including education, general health, nutritional intake and lifestyle factors, such as exercise. Although the way the data was analysed took those factors into account and still found an association, cognitive decline and dementia are strongly influenced by many environmental and genetic factors, and it is unlikely that consumption of one particular food is sufficient to ward off dementia.
Another weakness of this study is the fact that participants reported their nut consumption via a questionnaire. Evidence shows that self-reported food consumption should always be interpreted with caution.
Although randomised controlled trials indicate that eating nuts has an effect on blood flow (including to the brain), there isn’t enough evidence to draw conclusions about their impact on cognitive function.
What we can say at this point is that the evidence on nuts and cognitive decline is promising, but it isn’t strong enough to make nutritional recommendations. Simply consuming two teaspoons of nuts per day is unlikely to reduce your risk of dementia.
Many diseases develop and become more likely as we age. Here are some of the most common conditions, and how you can reduce your risk of getting them as you clock over into a new decade.
In your 40s
Maintaining a healthy weight can reduce the risk of developing arthritis, coronary heart disease, and other common and related conditions, including back pain, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and many cancers. But almost one-third of Australians in their 40s are obese and one in five already have arthritis.
From the age of 45 (or 35 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders), heart health checks are recommended to assess risk factors and initiate a plan to improve the health of your heart. This may include changing your diet, reducing your alcohol intake, increasing your physical activity, and improving your well-being.
If you don’t already have symptoms of arthritis or if they’re mild, this decade is your chance to reduce your risk of the disease progressing. Focus on the manageable factors, like shedding excess weight, but also on improving muscle strength. This may also help to prevent or delay sarcopenia, which is the decline of skeletal muscle tissue with ageing, and back pain.
Most people will begin to experience age-related vision decline in their 40s, with difficulty seeing up close and trouble adjusting to lighting and glare. A baseline eye check is recommended at age 40.
In your 50s
In your 50s, major eye diseases become more common. Among Australians aged 55 and above, age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, diabetes-related eye diseases and glaucoma account for more than 80% of vision loss.
A series of health screenings are recommended when people turn 50. These preventive measures can help with the early detection of serious conditions and optimising your treatment choices and prognosis. Comprehensive eye assessments are recommended every one to two years to ensure warning signs are detected and vision can be saved.
National cancer screening programs for Australians aged 50 to 74, are available every two years for bowel and breast cancer.
To screen for bowel cancer, older Australians are sent a test in the post they can do at home. If the test is positive, the person is then usually sent for a colonoscopy, a procedure in which a camera and light look for abnormalities of the bowel.
In 2016, 8% of people screened had a positive test result. Of those who underwent a colonoscopy, 1 in 26 were diagnosed with confirmed or suspected bowel cancer and one in nine were diagnosed with adenomas. These are potential precursors to bowel cancer which can be removed to reduce your future risk.
To check for breast cancer, women are encouraged to participate in the national mammogram screening program. More than half (59%) of all breast cancers detected through the program are small (less than or equal to 15mm) and are easier to treat (and have better survival rates) than more advanced cancers.
If you’re a smoker, quitting is the best way to improve both your lung and heart health. Using evidence-based methods to quit with advice from a health professional or support service will greatly improve your chances of success.
The build-up of plaques in artery walls by fats, cholesterol and other substances (atherosclerosis) can happen from a younger age. But the hardening of these plaques and narrowing of arteries, which greatly increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, is most likely to occur from age 65 and above.
Exercise protects against atherosclerosis and research consistently shows any physical activity is better than nothing when it comes to heart health. If you’re not currently active, gradually build up to the recommended 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on most, preferably all, days.
Other potentially modifiable risk factors for stroke include high blood pressure, a high-fat diet, alcohol consumption, and smoking.
Your 60s is also a common decade for surgeries, including joint replacements and cataract surgery. Joint replacements are typically very successful, but are not an appropriate solution for everyone and are not without risks. After a joint replacement, you’ll benefit from physiotherapy, exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight.
The treatment for cataracts is to surgically remove the cloudy lens. Cataract surgery is the most common elective surgery worldwide, with very low complication rates, and provides immediate restoration of lost vision.
In your 70s
Many of the conditions mentioned above are still common in this decade. It’s also a good time to consider your risk of falls. Four in ten people in their 70s will have a fall and it can lead to a cascade of fractures, hospitalisations, disability and injury.
Osteoporosis is one cause of falls. It occurs most commonly in post-menopausal women but almost one-quarter of people with osteoporosis are men. Osteoporosis is often known as a silent disease because there are usually no symptoms until a fracture occurs. Exercise and diet, including calcium and vitamin D, are important for bone health.
Older people are also vulnerable to mental health conditions because of a combination of reduced cognitive function, limitations in physical health, social isolation, loneliness, reduced independence, frailty, reduced mobility, disability, and living conditions.
Early diagnosis is important to effectively plan and initiate appropriate treatment options which help people live well with dementia. But dementia remains underdiagnosed.
Around 70% of Australians aged 85 and above have five or more chronic diseases and take multiple medications to manage these conditions. Effective medication management is critical for people living with multiple conditions because medications for one condition may exacerbate the symptoms of a different coexisting condition.
December 2018 | UCLA – Study shows dementia care program delays nursing home admissions, cuts Medicare costs
New research shows that a comprehensive, coordinated care program for people with dementia and their caregivers significantly decreased the likelihood that the individuals would enter a nursing home. The study also shows that the program saved Medicare money and was cost-neutral after accounting for program costs.
The research, conducted at the UCLA Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care Program, was designed to evaluate the costs of administering the program, as well as the health care services used by program participants, including hospitalizations, emergency room visits, hospital readmissions and long-term nursing home placement.
“The findings of this study show that a health care system-based comprehensive dementia care program can keep persons with dementia in their homes and in the community without any additional cost to Medicare,” said the study’s senior author, Dr. David Reuben, Archstone Professor of Medicine and chief of the UCLA Division of Geriatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
The research focused on the UCLA Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care Program. In the program, people with dementia and their caregivers meet with a nurse practitioner specializing in dementia care for a 90-minute in-person assessment and then receive a personalized dementia care plan that addresses the medical, mental health and social needs of both people. The nurse practitioners work collaboratively with the patient’s primary care provider and specialist physicians to implement the care plan, including adjustments as needs change over time. A total of 1,083 Medicare beneficiaries with dementia were enrolled in the program and were followed for three years. The study compared them to a similar group of patients living in the same ZIP codes who did not participate in the program.
“The most striking finding was that patients enrolled in the program reduced their risk of entering a nursing home by about 40 percent,” said lead author Dr. Lee Jennings, assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine. Jennings began the project while on faculty at the Geffen School and finished it after arriving at Oklahoma.
There were no differences between the two study groups in hospitalizations, emergency room visits or hospital readmissions. However, cost was another important element of the study. Participants in the program saved Medicare $601 per patient, per quarter, for a total of $2,404 a year. However, after program costs were factored in, the program was cost-neutral and might result in savings in other settings, such as at other health care systems. That was good news to the study’s authors.
“We found the study to be very exciting,” Jennings said, “because it showed that an intensive intervention can delay nursing home entry without adding costs. The intervention isn’t going to reverse dementia, but it allows us to provide high-quality care to help patients cope with the progression of this disease and stay in their homes for longer.”
Jennings added that individuals with dementia typically have not received good-quality care. “Part of the reason,” she said, “is that the care takes a significant amount of time, which primary care physicians don’t have in abundance. In addition, pharmacologic treatments for dementia are limited, which makes community resources all the more important for both patients and caregivers. However, community programs tend to be underutilized.”
The intervention featured in the study addresses those issues directly. The assessment looks not only at what the patient and caregiver need, but also at their strengths, such as financial security, family assistance and proximity to community resources. It is designed to be interdisciplinary and to address the needs of both patients and caregivers.
“This study aligns with similar studies of collaborative care models for other chronic diseases, such as heart failure,” Jennings said. “It underscores that we need to be thinking differently about how we provide care to persons with chronic illnesses, like dementia. This study shows the benefit of a collaborative care model, where nurse practitioners and physicians work together to provide comprehensive dementia care.”
Unlike the effervescent bubbles that stream to the top of champagne flutes on New Year’s Eve, what I call brain bubbles are far from celebratory. These bubbles are metaphorical rather than physical, and they distort the stream of reality processed by our brains. Like a real estate bubble that reflects an inflated perception of home values, a brain bubble twists your perception of the world around you. And when either of these bubbles bursts, the results can be devastating.
Problems arise when distorted information results in flawed decisions that negatively affect our lives. As a neuroscientist who’s worked closely with laboratory rats for over three decades, I’ve gleaned from them a few good strategies people can use to burst brain bubbles and enhance well-being in the year ahead. Rat brains are small but have the same general areas and neurochemicals we have, so these rodents are valuable laboratory models for human behavior.
Getting back down to Earth
Psychoactive drug use, aspects of privilege and poverty, psychiatric illness and, in some cases, religious and political beliefs can all create brain bubbles. Even daily excursions to the virtual world of apps, social media and cybergames sever our connections to concrete aspects of the real world and let distorting brain bubbles develop.
This is especially problematic for children’s brains that are still developing. An ongoing National Institutes of Health study suggests that two hours of screen time each day distorts language and thinking abilities in these junior digital users.
As our attention is hijacked by the closest screen while a Roomba cleans the floor and Alexa orders pizza to be delivered to the front door, what’s left for our brains to do? Sure, we likely face cognitive challenges at work each day, but human brains are built for sophisticated and complex activity – even though we’re often lulled into mindlessly scrolling through a virtual feed. In fact, a brain area often associated with reward and pleasure, the nucleus accumbens, is smaller in people who spend more time checking Facebook posts on their smartphones.
Obviously, some of these distortion-generating circumstances are out of our control. But a heightened awareness of our authentic world can move us toward a more reality-based, well-grounded brain – free of those brain bubbles.
The rats that my students and I train in our studies to physically work for coveted treats (Froot Loops cereal is a favorite) develop healthier emotional responses than the animals we call “trust-fund rats” because they’re merely given their sweet rewards. The harder-working rats have healthier stress hormone levels and engage in more sophisticated search strategies when they encounter a surprise challenge – such as when we move their expected Froot Loop rewards. They’re more persistent as they spend time trying to solve the problem, rather than quickly giving up and walking away.
So whereas one popular New Year’s resolution involves saving up to build financial capital, we can keep our brains in peak condition for the year ahead by building up experiential capital. Real-world experiences represent the best currency for our brain circuits, providing neural security for our future decisions in the coming year. Spending time engaged in hobbiessuch as knitting or gardening, for example, with complex movements and rich sensory experiences, provides a valuable yield for our brains.
Savor the anticipation
When the calendar flips to a new year, it’s common to reflect on the past and look to the future. According to the neuroscience literature, this anticipation could be one of the most pleasurable – and healthy – tasks our brains engage in all year long.
Dopamine is the poster neurotransmitter for the cognitive endeavor of anticipating. Traditionally known for its role in pleasure, this neurochemical system can be hijacked by psychoactive drugs such as cocaine that serve as potent creators of reality-distorting brain bubbles.
Rodent research provides fascinating insights here, however. Researchers use sophisticated techniques to measure dopamine activity as rats press laboratory levers that reward them with drugs. Surprisingly, this neurochemical system surges when the animal merely anticipates taking the drug as it approaches the drug lever, as well as when the drug is actually infused into the brain.
Anticipating a new start and a new year may be a scaled-down version of approaching the experimental lever for a hit of cocaine – a legal and healthy dopamine dose in this case. You can try to keep this emotional high going through the year by amping up the anticipation in your daily life: Focus more on delayed than immediate gratification. Buying and planning for experiences is more satisfying than material purchases. Mapping out a menu, shopping for ingredients and cooking a meal provides more dopamine time – and brain-engaging behaviors – than nuking a frozen meal and eating it three minutes later.
Seize the reins of your stress
Another way to enhance our well-being through the year is to gain some sense of control over the stress in our lives. Real-time and authentic interactions with the environment can help us gain a sense of control over the inevitable uncertainty and unpredictability we face each day.
I see evidence of this in the lab. When I furnish my rats’ housing with natural elements such as dirt, hollowed-out logs and rocks, they’re busier and less likely to sit around the edge of the cage than animals in boring empty cages. After building their experiential capital, these enriched rats have healthier stress and resilience hormone profiles and engage in bolder behaviors, such as diving to the bottom of swim tanks instead of staying on the top doing their best impression of a dog paddle. As I watch these animals in various tasks, they appear to be gaining control over the challenges they encounter.
Perhaps this is why retired U.S. four-star admiral William McRaven emphasized simple life strategies in his 2014 University of Texas commencement speech, declaring that “if you want to change your life and maybe the world, start off by making your bed.” Then, even if you have a terrible day, you will come home to a made bed, evidence that you had a positive impact in at least one area of your life that day.
Lessons from the laboratory rats also provide potential explanations for some of my own personal favorite New Year’s Day traditions – including the mundane tasks of cooking a familiar southern meal, cleaning my closet and watching HGTV’s Dream House giveaway with my family while we all declare what we would do if we won the beautiful house. Move in? Sell it? Make it an Airbnb rental?
Thinking like a neuroscientist, I know that cooking and cleaning are active endeavors with clear outcomes that allow me to gain a small sense of control, decreasing stress hormones. Playfully anticipating winning a new home taps into that feel-good dopamine system as we contemplate more serious options for the new year. And, perhaps the best neurochemical hit of all is the spike in oxytocin, the neurochemical involved in positive social connections, as I spend time with loved ones.
Although it’s common to turn to pharmaceuticals to lift our emotions and improve our mental health, the emotional benefits of many New Year’s traditions remind me that basic responses can serve as what I call “behaviorceuticals” that enhance well-being. New Year’s resolutions may take the form of New Year’s Rx’s as we consider healthy lifestyle choices for the coming year: Shrink those distorting brain bubbles and build realistic connections to enrich life’s simple pleasures.
We are told that we are a nation of couch potatoes, lacking the will and the strength to turn around the obesity tanker. We all need a little help in our quest for a healthier life and design can play a crucial part. If we designed our towns, cities, homes and workplaces more like animal experts design zoos, we could be one step nearer to reaching our fitness goals – as long as we can have some fun along the way.
It is reported that British people will be the fattest in Europe by 2025 and that if we want to reverse this we should have a healthier lifestyle by exercising more and eating less. But we are often made to feel guilty for not sticking to theses healthy lifestyle plans. I would suggest that before we start blaming people for adopting sedentary lifestyles, we should be taking a step back to look at the design of the environments, towns and cities in which we live.
The link between the design of the built and natural environment and its role in our health and well-being has been well explored. Now new research, led by Lancaster University, on “design for health” suggests that the environment, including buildings, cities, urban spaces and transport infrastructure, is closely linked to the lifestyles we adopt.
What is abundantly clear is that, as we shape our environment, it is also shaping us. Our psychological, physiological and physical status as well as our interactions with other people and with the natural environment are all affected. A key challenge that governments and policy makers worldwide are facing is how our built environment and infrastructure should be shaped to support healthier behaviours to prevent disease.
First, we should stop focusing on methods that tell people what to (or not to) do and which attempt to change their behaviour simply through media campaigns and punitive measures, such as tax schemes. While seeking to minimise the barriers that prevent healthy behaviours, we should make sure that the design of new environments is taken into account.
Looking to zoos
A good model would be to look at how zoos are designed. Before a zoo is built, it is common practice for zoologists, biologists, animal psychologists, nutritionists, architects, designers and landscape architects to work closely together to create an environment that optimises the living conditions for the animals.
Important environmental elements, such as vegetation, habitat, lighting, materials and each animal’s requirements are taken into account. The ultimate aim is to design an environment that fully supports the animals’ physical, psychological and social well-being. Ironically, we do not seem to make the same demands when a town, neighbourhood or workplace environment for humans is planned and designed.
Another opportunity that has recently emerged is the healthy new town NHS initiative. The aim is to radically rethink how we live and take an ambitious look at improving health through the built environment. Ten demonstrator towns will be built across England with community health and well-being as their main focus. Clinicians, designers and technology experts will reimagine how healthcare can be delivered in these places. Although this is a step in the right direction, what it is currently missing is the more holistic approach we have seen in the design of the zoos.
A crucial element in designing these towns so they are places that people would want to live in, is to include community members in their creation. This strategy would help design-in health-promoting behaviours, such as access to healthy food outlets or green spaces in which people can walk and exercise.
Playful design – the mapping of playful experiences from games and toys to other non-game contexts – can play an important role here in inviting and encouraging people towards healthier alternatives. For example, the piano stairs project in Stockholm, which converts the metro stairs into a giant functioning piano keyboard – much like the piano made famous in the Tom Hanks movie Big (1988) – demonstrates great promise. It encourages commuters to opt for the intriguing new stairway instead of the escalators to enjoy making musical movements as they go up and down.
A project in The Netherlands, meanwhile, illustrates how everyday street furniture, such as lampposts, benches and bollards, can be inexpensively converted into impromptu exercise devices, inviting people to engage in casual activity and socialise with their neighbours. We could therefore envisage several other contexts were playfulness can transform mundane everyday activities into fun ones that encourage people into a more active and social lifestyle.
We could convert building walls into activity walls to encourage stretching of arms and legs through touch; redesign public squares and walkways into interactive dance floors that invite movement and guide you through a city; and transform workplace spaces and public places into “playgrounds” that boost movement and productivity and decrease lethargy.
So there you have it. If we want to be a nation of lean, mean and healthy citizens we need to learn from zoos and the animals that live in them. And we need to embrace playfulness and enjoy the place where we live. That way, we can tackle life with a hop, skip and a jump.
As we get older we have a greater risk of developing impairments in areas of cognitive function – such as memory, reasoning and verbal ability. We also have a greater risk of dementia, which is what we call cognitive decline that interferes with daily life. The trajectory of this cognitive decline can vary considerably from one person to the next.
Despite these varying trajectories, one thing is for sure: even cognitively normal people experience pathological changes in their brain, including degeneration and atrophy, as they age. By the time a person reaches the age of 70 to 80, these changes closely resemble those seen in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Even so, many people are able to function normally in the presence of significant brain damage and pathology. So why do some experience symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia, while others remain sharp of mind?
It comes down to something called cognitive reserve. This is a concept used to explain a person’s capacity to maintain normal cognitive function in the presence of brain pathology. To put it simply, some people have better cognitive reserve than others.
Evidence shows the extent of someone’s cognitive decline doesn’t occur in line with the amount of biological damage in their brain as it ages. Rather, certain life experiences determine someone’s cognitive reserve and, therefore, their ability to avoid dementia or memory loss.
How do we know?
Being educated, having higher levels of social interaction or working in cognitively demanding occupations (managerial or professional roles, for instance) increases resilience to cognitive decline and dementia. Many studies have shown this. These studies followed people over a number of years and looked for signs of them developing cognitive decline or dementia in that period.
Cognitive reserve is traditionally measured and quantified based on self reports of life experience such as education level, occupational complexity and social engagement. While these measures provide an indication of reserve, they’re only of limited use if we want to identify those at risk of cognitive decline. Genetic influences obviously play a part in our brain development and will influence resilience.
The fundamental brain mechanisms that underpin cognitive reserve are still unclear.
The brain consists of complex, richly interconnected networks that are responsible for our cognitive ability. These networks have the capacity to change and adapt to task demands or brain damage. And this capacity is essential not only for normal brain function, but also for maintaining cognitive performance in later life.
This adaptation is governed by brain plasticity. This is the brain’s ability to continuously modulate its structure and function throughout life in response to different experiences. So, plasticity and flexibility in brain networks likely contribute in a major way to cognitive reserve and these processes are influenced by both genetic profiles and life experiences.
A major focus of our research is examining how brain connectivity and plasticity relate to reserve and cognitive function. We hope this will help identify a measure of reserve that reliably identifies individuals at risk of cognitive decline.
Strengthening your brain
While there is little we can do about our genetic profile, adapting our lifestyles to include certain types of behaviours offers a significant opportunity to improve our cognitive reserve.
Activities that engage your brain, such as learning a new language and completing crosswords, as well as having high levels of social interaction, increase reserve and can reduce your risk of developing dementia.
Regular physical activity also improves cognitive function and reduces the risk of dementia. Unfortunately, little evidence is available to suggest what type of physical activity, as well as intensity and amount, is required to best increase reserve and protect against cognitive impairment.
There is also mounting evidence that being sedentary for long periods of the day is bad for health. This might even undo any benefits gained from periods of physical activity. So, it is important to understand how the composition of physical activity across the day impacts brain health and reserve, and this is an aim of our work.
Our ongoing studies should contribute to the development of evidence-based guidelines that provide clear advice on physical activity patterns for optimising brain health and resilience.