Louise Zacest: 31 January 2023

2023 is underway, and hopefully you were able to enjoy a relaxing holiday break and take the opportunity to recharge your batteries.

Typically, many of us will begin the new year with the best intentions around improving our health and wellness.

Amongst other resolutions, we’ll have renewed our gym memberships, started morning runs and promised to cut down on alcohol and takeaways.

The difficulty is, as always, to maintain our focus as the months unfold and life’s challenges stack-up.

Of course, the future always presents challenges and, as New Zealand’s population ages, caring for our brain health is just as vital looking after our physical wellbeing. 

Maintaining memory and the ability to continue to perform cognitive tasks is especially important. Indeed, many of us will have experienced the heartbreak of watching loved ones suffer from the debilitating memory loss, confusion, anxiety and behaviour changes associated with dementia. 

The statistics are pretty confronting. By the time we get to our 80s and older, between 1 in 5 and 1 in 3 of us can expect to experience dementia.

That’s 22% of adults aged 85 to 89 and 33% of adults aged 90 and older.

Your individual risk of developing dementia is linked to your age, DNA and lifestyle, with 12 causes identified as adding more risk.

You’re likely able to identify many of these risks that include drinking excess alcohol, lack of exercise, smoking and obesity, all the things we’ve probably promised to tackle with our new year’s resolutions.

But other risks are less obvious.

Poor education, hypertension, traumatic brain injury, hearing loss, depression, social isolation, diabetes and air pollution are other factors that can play a part.

In Britain, the disease affects nearly one million people (and 55 million worldwide), so to help combat the growing threat, Alzheimer's Research UK have developed a handy tool that offers tips on how to stay sharp.

Click the link to test your risk and receive expert advice on what you can do to outsmart some of the lifestyle choices that can accentuate dementia risk.

Here in New Zealand, a comprehensive 2021 Lancet Report predicts an increase from 70,000 dementia sufferers in 2020 to 170,000 in 2050.

The impact on our healthcare system and the associated social costs are staggering too, with figures rising from $1.9 billion now to $4.5 billion for the same period.

But that future is not certain if we acknowledge what triggers the disease and then actively take steps in our 40s, 50s and 60s to lessen the chances. 

For example, Dr. Sarah Bauermeister, Senior Scientist at Dementia Platforms UK, notes several studies associate hearing loss with increased dementia risk.

"What’s not clear but a probable factor is that people are working harder to hear conversations rather than focusing on cognitive tasks, and their world shrinks," she says.

So, having regular hearing tests and utilising hearing aids is clearly a smart choice to help stay connected, reduce feelings of isolation and lessen the risk of developing dementia.

The Lancet report also points out that Māori and Pacifica are overrepresented in some of the individual 12 identified risks and 4 - 5 % more likely to develop dementia as compared to European and Asian ethnicities. So there’s an equity issue here too.

Which means it’s important any ongoing education is delivered in ways that are culturally appropriate to every community.

But what should the overarching advice be?

Luckily, you don’t have to be rocket scientist to help yourself stay as mentally sharp as possible.

We all know that taking care of our physical and emotional wellbeing will significantly help.

But what about exercising the mind?

The UK-based ‘PROTECT Study on Brain-Aging’ examined the link between cognition and word or number puzzle use in 19,078 cognitively healthy adults aged between 50 and 93.

Results demonstrated that those doing word or number puzzles at least once a month showed significantly better ability across all cognitive domains and, since the levels of overall cognitive improvement was similar for either type of puzzle, it could be concluded that participating in a brain engaging activity on a regular basis may be more important than the specific type of activity.

So, taking up a hobby, learning something new, doing daily puzzles, in combination with staying socially engaged, regular exercise and following a good diet are all positive, preventative steps we can take.

Because if we sharpen our approach to the risks of dementia in our 40s and 50s, we’ll have a much greater chance of staying sharp in our 70s, 80s and beyond.

As usual I’d love to hear your thoughts or observations on this important issue, please share and comment on the post below or drop me an email at ceo@unimed.co.nz