16 January, 2020

Dementia – the biggest killer of Australian women, part 1

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Welcome to our 4 part series on the health of Australians.

Recently the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) published their survey findings for the health of Australian women.

The survey shows that we have an ageing female demographic, that the leading cause of disease burden for women is cardiovascular disease, and the biggest killer is dementia and Alzheimer disease. Two thirds of those suffering from dementia are female.

By the time women reach 65 the risk of developing either a stroke or dementia is one in every two women. Scary stuff!

So, why are women so vulnerable to cognitive decline?

There is very little research on the progression of dementia in women. Up until recently, it was assumed that women’s longer life spans played a part in higher numbers of dementia. However, new studies are starting to uncover the importance of diet and lifestyle in preventing cognitive decline.

In general, it appears that women have higher risk factors compared with men.

Why women are at risk

A Lancet study found that there are seven modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer’s that can be controlled, which may help reduce risk. These are: diabetes, hypertension, obesity, smoking, depression, cognitive inactivity, and physical inactivity.

Sleep has also been shown in other studies to be a major risk factor. From painful periods to raising children, women often lose more sleep than men.

Key Risk Factors:

– High cholesterol

– Hypertension

– Insulin resistance

– Depression

– Sleep loss

– Physical and mental inactivity

– Obesity in middle life

– Smoking and alcohol

Cardiovascular health

The health of women’s cardiovascular system is key.

Landmark studies from the Healthy Ageing Program at Melbourne University show that the lifestyle choices that maintain healthy cholesterol and blood pressure are critical in preventing dementia. Of concern, 3 in 5 Australian women are overweight or obese, significantly increasing their risk of insulin resistance, cholesterol problems and hypertension – all factors that increase the risk of dementia.

The only way we can turn this around is by moving our bodies and eating healthy.

In Alzheimer’s Disease, brain inflammation and insulin resistance injure neurons and inhibit communication between brain cells. Reducing foods that inflame the brain, such as sugar and refined foods, is critical.

Depression has also been linked to an increased risk of developing dementia. More prone to mental health issues than men, 2 in 5 women experience mental illness in their lifetime, increasing the risk of dementia.

What’s good for your heart is good for your brain

For starters, eat more vegetables. Only 7.7% of women consume an adequate daily intake of fruits and vegetables!

Research shows the Mediterranean diet is particularly beneficial for cognitive function, mental wellbeing, and good cardiovascular health. It is a diet that’s filled with lots of green leafy vegetables, seasonal fruits, lots of fish for omega 3 fats, whole grains, extra virgin olive oil, nuts and small amounts of lean red meat while keeping sugary and processed foods to a minimum. These healthy foods all reduce brain inflammation and improve cholesterol health.

Natural therapies such as herbal medicine, homeopathy, acupuncture and nutrition may help modify the risk factors such as high cholesterol, hypertension, insomnia and depression. There is a growing body of research for addressing these diseases, along with preventing them in the first instance.

Getting physical not only keeps our bodies and weight healthy, but it also keeps our brains fighting fit. Many studies have found sweat-inducing, heart-pumping exercise can improve memory and cognition, as blood flow is crucial for healthy brain function. Being active also increases the quality of sleep and minimises the impact of stress, both of which are risk factors. Exercising at least three times a week is recommended to help reduce the onset of dementia.

But it’s not all about exercising your body. Studies show that by also exercising our minds we can ward off brain deterioration. Challenging your mind in unfamiliar ways, and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, may prevent cognitive decline and dementia, according to Australia’s Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research. By embracing new hobbies, learning new skills, etc, new neural pathways are stimulated, keeping your brain young and sharp.

So, women, be proactive with your health – and seek care when needed. Pay attention to those key modifiable risk factors and address them with the best care you can get. Including natural therapies as an innovative and holistic approach in the prevention and treatment of this terrible condition may offer women a much brighter outcome simply by reducing the risk factors, paving the way for a healthy long life.

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