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A Head-Healthy Diet

When we speak of dementia, it almost invariably is about Alzheimer’s Disease, but there are multiple types of cognitive decline that fall under the heading of dementia. In fact, the second most common dementia – accounting for 15-20 percent of all dementia cases – behind Alzheimer’s Disease actually has an important attribute that its more common and better known sibling does not have. Vascular dementia actually can be prevented in much the same way that cardiovascular disease can be prevented…through diet.

Over the past decades, we have radically improved lifestyle and health style understanding of what causes heart disease. By extension we also have improved our understanding of vascular health which means we are better able to prevent heart attacks/myocardial infarctions as well as strokes. Most people, if asked, can tell you what their good cholesterol (HDL) and bad cholesterol (LDL) numbers are or at least if they are “good” or “bad.” Surgeons have become quite talented at eliminating blockages around the heart and also in addressing some of the potential vascular threats that could become strokes. They have not become quite as good at preventing or removing the threats of mini- or major strokes.

But the vascular element that is shared across the types of strokes could be lumped into two categories of diet that we could refer to as “heart healthy” and “head healthy.” But just as there are people who don’t pay much attention to their diet and exercise as ways to live healthier by being thoughtful of their heart health, there may also be a shortage of people who will work to maintain “head health.”

Scientists in France examined a large sample of over 1,600 people whose mean age was 72.3 years and 63% of whom were women. They looked for diet differences that could predict “cardiovascular disease burden” (CVD) which, in turn, could predict vascular dementia. People who were under 75 years of age who also consumed two to three portions of fish weekly helped reduce their CVD risk for vascular dementia as much as having hypertension increased the risk of vascular dementia. For people over 75 years of age the effects were not as strong. So, what does this tell us? First, one has to start early in a healthy diet to have a significant effect on brain health. But it likely is never too late to change diet for the better. You just get more return on your dietary investment before age 75. Something for both you and your older loved ones to “chew on.”

Charlotte Bishop is a Caregiver Coach, an Aging Life Care Advisor, a Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago. She also is the co-author of How Do I Know You? A Caregiver’s Lifesaver for Dealing with Dementia.

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