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Dementia refers to the loss of a person’s intellectual ability and memory. As we get older, there is a certain loss of cognitive ability that is a normal part of aging. Dementia, however, refers to a much more severe and advanced loss of cognitive functioning. People who have dementia can lose skills that they used to have and have impairment in their activities of daily living.

The two most common causes of dementia are Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. The underlying cause of Alzheimer’s disease is not known. However, we know that advancing age and family members who had Alzheimer’s disease are considered risk factors. Vascular dementia refers to a loss of cognitive functioning that occurs as a result of multiple small strokes that occur over a period of time. There are other more rare causes of dementia including Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease. There are also certain rare infections that can cause dementia.

It has been known for decades dementia has a genetic component. A recent research study that was carried out at the University of Exeter in England tried to answer the question as to whether people who have a genetic marker for dementia can avoid developing dementia or at least reduce their risk. A population of about 200,000 people were studied over a period of 10 years. Because of previous research that suggested that certain healthy lifestyle activities can reduce dementia risk, the British researchers attempted to look at lifestyle factors to see if these could play a role in dementia prevention.

There were four specific categories of lifestyle that were looked at in this study. These included smoking status, physical activity level, diet and alcohol consumption. A healthy level of physical activity was considered to be at least 150 minutes of moderate physical exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week.

A healthy diet was considered if people consumed foods as follows: Fruits, non-starchy vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish, yogurt and minimally processed whole grains. Also reducing consumption of red meat, processed meats and foods rich in refined grains, starch, added sugars, salt and trans-fat were considered beneficial.

Healthy alcohol consumption was defined as 0 to 14 grams per day for women and 0 to 28 grams per day for men (14 grams of alcohol equals one beer, five ounces wine, one shot of hard liquor).

The findings of the research study showed that people who were in a high genetic risk group and had healthy lifestyle choices had a lower risk of developing dementia later in life compared with people who had high genetic risk and unhealthy lifestyle choices. People who were in a low genetic risk group and had healthy lifestyle choices, had the lowest overall risk of dementia.

Therefore avoiding tobacco use, maintaining physical activity, healthy food choices and moderate alcohol consumption can help to ward off dementia, even in people who have genetic risk factors.

Dr. Mark Roth writes about internal medicine for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is an internal medicine physician with University Hospitals.

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