Dementia. It’s fair to say that it’s something we all dread – either because we worry we’ll develop it, or we’re concerned about an ageing parent or family member. But what are the facts and the myths? Are there things you can do to reduce your risk? Experts say yes.

The good news is, there’s a relatively low risk of dementia in your 50s, says Professor Graham Stokes, director of dementia care at BUPA and a specialist with over 30 years’ experience in the area. He has also written a number of books about the condition.

“There are around 7 per cent of people living with dementia under the age of 65,” he explains. “The earliest signs of it include exaggerated forgetfulness, poor concentration, anxiety and withdrawal, errors of judgement and word finding difficulties.

“That said, there are a lot of widely believed myths about dementia. These include that it’s the inevitable consequence of living into advanced old age, that it’s the result of ageing and not brain disease – and that dementia only affects old people. Dementia is a condition that is not caused by ageing, however, old age is a risk factor of dementia. Many people can live well into old age without developing dementia.”

What can we do to reduce our risk?
One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that we can’t do anything about age-related brain damage or degeneration, says Professor Stokes. “For example, the risk that having an unhealthy heart can have a knock-on effect to the brain is not commonly known, nor is the fact that the risks are apparent in middle age,” he explains.

“We now know that making positive lifestyle choices can reduce our dementia risk. It’s never too late to start looking after your heart and diet, and increasing exercise as well as quitting smoking.”

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How can you ‘exercise’ your brain?
It’s true that your brain needs a workout as much as your body does, but there are lots of free ways to give your grey matter a work-out. “It doesn’t have to be brain-training exercises or game playing,” says Professor Stokes. “Instead, living an intellectually stimulating lifestyle – listening to radio and music, using one’s imagination, having conversations and going sightseeing – can be just as useful. It’s also important to remain socially engaged. We should exercise our brains regularly and often; it should be a feature of daily life.”

That’s not to say you shouldn’t do crosswords (especially if you love them) or challenge your brain with Sudoko or special exercises. Keep Your Brain Stronger For Longer by Tonia Vojtkofsky (Allen and Unwin, $24.99) is a fantastic, fun book jam-packed with cognitive challenges and all you need is a pen (and your noggin!). The author recommends three hours a week of cognitive exercise.

“Research has shown the benefits of keeping cognitive abilities strong,” writes Vojtkofsky,a specialist in mild congnitive impairment (MCI). “Those who’ve challenged their brains throughout their life have a lower risk of developing dementia, and those who have MCI – a large risk factor for dementia – and exercise their brains can keep their cognitive abilities stronger for longer.”

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Cognitive exercises such as Sudoku may lower your risk of developing dementia – click here to play online

The power of language and a stronger brain
Vojtkofsky includes many language exercises in her book too, and for good reason. “Language is an ability that tends to stay relatively strong and while exercising it, we can also aid broader cognitive functions. You know that ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon when you can’t think of words as quickly as before? These many language exercises will help you strengthen those neural networks and potentially increase word retrieval speed.”

How about languages? Research shows that people who are bilingual generally have better memories and cognitive function – and there are Canadian studies that suggest dementia develops later for people with a second language. Even better is research out of Edinburgh that found that learning a language benefits the brain no matter how old you are when you do it – so there’s no time like the present to start looking up a local language course!

What can you do if you’re seeing signs of dementia?
First up: don’t worry too much. A little short-term memory loss often isn’t cause for alarm as we get older – in fact, studies show it can be caused by stress, anxiety, depression or even vitamin B deficiency. That said, it’s also important to consult your GP and get checked out.

“He or she can exclude treatable conditions and provide reassurance,” says Professor Stokes, “and, if necessary, refer you for a specialist assessment and possibly prescribing anti-dementia medicines that can slow down symptom progression for a year or two.”

There’s a greater commitment now to the development of dementia-inclusive communities, protecting the rights of people with dementia and looking at digital innovation to help people with dementia live supported lives in their own homes for longer, he adds. “Additionally, a focus on supportive care for people living with dementia, and their families, to enhance communication and meaningful engagement can promote a sense of wellbeing for those affected by it.”

Has dementia affected your family? Share your stories below.

(Feature image: © 2014 Sony Pictures Classics)

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