What can I do to prevent Alzheimer’s or mental decline?

According to latest figures covering 2015, dementia is now the leading cause of death in England and Wales. In this article we look at the lifestyle choices that can reduce the risk of developing dementia and which technologies can help with those lifestyle changes.

Studies for a medical cure to halt or reverse Alzheimer’s and other dementias are frequently in the news and are very promising, but they are still some way from being proven effective and safe enough to be available for prescription.  However, there is increasing evidence that lifestyle can alter your chances of developing dementia, and there are many tools out there to help you make the lifestyle adjustments.  The following top 10 lifestyle changes are recommended by the US based Alzheimer’s Association. Each is followed here with examples of tools that can help you make the adjustment; some of these tools are smart phone apps, others are devices to wear or have in your home. The main benefit of the tools is the motivation that having an easily completed record provides to track progress towards a goal.

1. Schedule time for physical exercise.

Exercise that raises your heart rate – e.g. fast walking or swimming – increases blood flow to the brain.

The ‘Couch to 5K’ programme takes people who are not used to doing any exercise from their couch to be able to run 3 miles (5 Kilometres).  It breaks this challenge into 9 weeks of 30 minute sessions 3 times per week, starting with brisk walking.  There is an Android and iPhone App as well as the web site

Fitbit, Withings and Jawbone are a few of an increasing number of wearable devices that record how many steps – and therefore how much exercise – you have done.  Some also record heart rate as well so exercise such as cycling are also recorded.  In the coming weeks we will be reviewing the Fitbit Charge 2 so please come back to find out more.

2. Get quality sleep

People with sleep disorders or those who do not get enough sleep have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s and related dementias.

Academics are not agreed whether being still is a good measure of sleep quality, but many devices that measure activity also measure sleep quality, assuming that if you are still (or heart rate is low) you must be in a deep sleep.  However, studies have shown that sleep quality can be predicted based on behaviour & mood during the day, and that sleep preparation exercises can improve sleep quality even after a bad day.  Most sleep preparation seems like common sense – like having a routine and not drinking a lot before bedtime.  However, some techniques are more suprising.   Most apps focus on playing relaxing music or natural sounds, some with meditations.

3. Maintain good cardiovascular health.

Avoid obesity and high blood pressure

Smart scales or a Wii Fit can track your weight and BMI with minimum effort, and some models allow all the people in a household to maintain individual profiles.  Other models also measure pulse rate; however, reviews suggest these are currently quite hit and miss, which seems to cause more stress.  Even if you can get the device to work, accuracy is not guaranteed but the makers hope that the relative measurements over time provide a picture of progress towards a healthy lifestyle.

There are also apps that invite you to enter information about yourself and your medication and then offer advice on maintaining good health.  We advise caution here, as the advice may be good quality but the information shared is very personal; without studying the privacy policy it is hard to be sure how the information may be used beyond the advice offered to you.

4. Eat a balanced and healthy diet.

Eating green, leafy vegetables and oily fish while reducing red meat have been shown to help reduce the risk of dementia.

There are many weight-loss apps available and these typically offer setting of goals, scanning barcodes of packaged food, or recording food cooked and eaten, providing charts of calories and food types.  Some will link to exercise data (from  a Fitbit, for example) and even link your diet goals to friends to add a social element.

Some of these apps provide premium services for a monthly fee, which can seem expensive unless compared to the cost of a private consultation with a nutritionist.

5. Participate in formal education, at any stage of life.

Taking a class at a local college or community centre can help reduce the risk of dementia.

Online courses are available from the Open University (FutureLearn) and other providers (search MOOC) which cover a huge range of topics from Ancient History to Artificial Intelligence.

6. Stop smoking

Studies have shown that quitting smoking can reduce the risk of dementia to the same as those who have not smoked. It’s never too late to quit!

There are numerous apps that provide support to help kick the habit, including Smoke Free from the NHS.  These range from programmes that advise how to curb your intake, or reduce the number of cigarettes per day, to those that help you log your smoking to show how well you are doing and calculate how much you are saving; others put you in touch with people who are going through the same experience.

7. Stay socially engaged

Stay involved in daily life with friends and social activities that are important to you.

Social media is the entire branch of the internet designed to help people stay in touch and this can supplement the face-to-face contact that people need.  Video chat with Skype, Facetime or Hangouts can also help people communicate better, enabling both parties to see how the other is.

8. Challenge yourself.

Challenging your mind has long- and short-term benefits for your brain and can include anything from doing a puzzle to painting or playing a card game.

Brain-training games are easy to find on the internet; those that involve reasoning or problem-solving do help people over 60 improve ability to complete daily tasks, and improve some skills in those over 50 as well according to the Alzheimer’s Society.   Playing for just 10 minutes at a time, a few times a week, has benefits; so brain-training is not time consuming.

9.Treat depression

Some studies link a history of depression with increased risk of cognitive decline, so seek medical treatment if you have symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health concerns. Also, try to manage stress.

If you suffer from depression there is no doubt you should see your GP.  Treatments offered may include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Beating the Blues is a computer based CBT program which is approved by the NHS for treating mild to moderate depression

10. Avoid brain injury

Wear a seatbelt in the car and work to prevent falls.

There aren’t apps to help with this type of risk reduction, but keeping walkways tidy and carpets in good condition can help avoid trip hazards.
Of course, well-motivated and organised individuals can work towards these lifestyle changes without any apps or gadgets.  However, many people (young and old) with good intentions have commented in reviews and discussion that they had not managed to achieve their goal until they bought a gadget or used an app to help them along when motivation flagged.

Has any device or app helped you or someone you know make a lifestyle change?  Do let us know either in the comments section below, using the contact form, or on our Facebook page.


Images used under creative commons licences:

Nicholas Winton: Li-sung (Self-photographed) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

Steve Shirley: By Lynn Hart – Lynn Hart, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42234266

Judi Dench: By Caroline Bonarde Ucci, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3590673

Richard Feynman: By Copyright Tamiko Thiel 1984 (OTRS communication from photographer) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons