Healthy Lifestyle Habits to Reduce Risk of Dementia


Photo: Jodi Matsuo

Hawaiʻi’s kūpuna population has been growing steadily, by about 37% since 2010. However, the number of keiki and working adults has decreased. In other words, our kūpuna population is growing faster than the population of potential caretakers. As we are part of a culture where taking care of our kūpuna is everyone’s kuleana, and because health habits are often learned and passed down from generation to generation, practicing healthy behaviors serves to ensure the longevity and quality of life for the entire household.

Dementia, the most common form being Alzheimer’s Disease, is typically an age-related disease that requires kōkua and aloha from all family members. It is caused by damage to brain cells, which interfere with memory, learning, thinking, emotions and judgement. Dementia often starts slowly and gets progressively worse. Early signs include challenges with short-term memory: keeping track of finances or personal belongings, preparing meals and remembering appointments. In its later stages, those affected require help with personal hygiene, feeding and other everyday activities.

A recent study reported that practicing five lifestyle habits may collectively lower the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease by 60%. These health habits are:

  1. Not smoking. Tobacco contains a variety of chemicals known to be neurotoxic – toxic to brain cells. It also damages your heart and blood vessels, including blood vessels in the brain. It does this by increasing fatty plaque build-up in the arteries and by the formation of blood clots, which can block blood flow and cause strokes.
  2. Exercising regularly. This involves doing at least 150 minutes (2-1/2 hours) of physical activity per week, of moderate or vigorous intensity. Moderate intensity exercises are those where you can carry on a conversation while doing it, but with some difficulty. Examples include brisk walking, aerobics and heavy yardwork. Vigorous activities are those where it is difficult to carry on a conversation. Examples include jogging, paddling, playing basketball or heavy outdoor labor.
  3. Limiting alcohol consumption. Heavy alcohol use has been shown to reduce brain volume, resulting in impaired brain function. While some say there are health benefits to drinking alcohol in moderation, the overall health risk from drinking is much higher than any slight benefits that may be associated with it. If you don’t drink alcohol, don’t start.
  4. Eating a plant-based diet. The MIND diet was developed by researchers who studied specific foods and their effect on brain health with the overall goal of reducing dementia. Foods emphasized on this diet include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, olive oil, fish, beans and chicken. Foods found to be harmful include butter/margarine, cheese, red meat, fried foods and sweets.
  5. Keeping your mind active. Regularly participating in mentally stimulating activities helps to improve cognitive function and the mental processes related to understanding, thinking, and storage and use of information. This includes reading, learning, puzzles, games and social activities.

Taking care of ourselves helps us to better care for others. “Ola nā iwi” (“The bones live”– said of a respected elder who is well cared for by his family).