Everyone thinks dementia is a normal process of ageing, but it really is a separate disease. It is only true that the risk factors increase with age, and stands to reason that living healthy delays onset by many years, says Eef Hogervorst, Professor of Biological Psychology, University of Loughborough, UK. 

One of the main causes for dementia is Alzheimer’s that causes toxic plaques to form in the brain and deter its function. Dementia could also arise due to vascular events in the brain such as stroke. But it is usually caused by a combination of factors, which include, believe it or not, your level of education.

“If you have a higher level of education, the symptoms are not apparent until very late, and the decline is rapid, within perhaps two years, as against 12 years in those with low education,” Prof. Hogervorst explains. It probably has to do with the fact that people with high education have a lot of coping skills; if they forget one word, they can find another; and a lot more functional connections between the neurons.

Prof. Hogervorst was in Chennai to deliver, at the instance of the Trimed Health and Lifestyle Forum 2013, the X1Appa Rao Lecture on ‘Lifestyle and the Ageing Brain’, on Sunday. In a chat with The Hindu on Monday, she stressed on the remediable risk factors, and gave workable tips on shaping up and keeping dementia at bay.

The group of risk factors one can influence are those causing heart disease — Hypertension, Obesity (hyper) Lipidaemia and Diabetes (HOLD). Add smoking to this, and what you have is a potential cocktail of risks for not only heart attacks, but also dementia.

For her, it is not about taking more medication, but rather, exercise. “The right exercise - something that makes you sweat, and increases your heart rate. We have to do that at least 150 minutes a week. It might sound like a lot, but it is not too bad if we can incorporate it into our lifestyle,” Prof. Hogervorst says. Walking to the store, taking the stairs instead of elevators and maybe brisk walking before having a meal can help.

Studies have shown that taking up weight or resistance training is good for improving memory function. “You don’t even have to do much. Just 20 minutes three times a week, and it can be done even when you are watching the television…you could lift cans or water bottles in each hand,” she says.

But the ideal would be to go back to traditional activities: washing clothes, sweeping. “May be this is the reason why in the past women did not get heart disease so much – all this was hard physical labour. But we’ve stopped doing that, and women don’t have the protection they used to have against heart disease that they had earlier.” Going back to older systems of medicine might also help, especially if they are used in conjunction with allopathy. “The work that Trimed is doing with holistic intervention is one lesson I can take from India.”

Diet-wise, she suggests we stay off sugar and processed foods. The recommended ideal is a ‘Mediterranean’ diet, but the Indian diet is also suited for this, she says. “If you are having a chappati, have a whole meal chappati, substitute white rice with brown or red rice. Have a lot of lentils – a rich source of folates. Low folate intake doubles the risk of dementia,” Prof. Hogervorst explains.

At the moment India has an estimated 3.7 million people with dementia. But this will double in the next couple of decades, what with increasing urbanisation and a high incidence of diabetes in the population, she warns. And the time to make amends, for those with sedentary lifestyles, and lousy diets, is mid life. “As we get older our resilience to handle stress and bad food comes down. Mid life is the last port of call – when we have to wake up and work towards reducing risk factors for heart disease or dementia. That way, we can keep people happy and as cognitively stable for as long as we can,” she says.