The Most Common Questions I Am Asked  

Dr Anne Kenny on Dementia MapSubmitted by Anne Kenny, MD
Together in Dementia

Is it possible to avoid getting dementia?  

The answer is, while I can’t guarantee  you won’t get dementia, there is much you can do to minimize your risk – even if your risk is high.

This has been proven in a study published in 2015 – known as the FINGERS Study or The Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability.

They selected individuals between the ages of 60-77 years. Those they selected had to be at an elevated risk for developing dementia by a scale that evaluates your cardiovascular risk.

The scale evaluates your age (more risk with increasing age), years of education (more education provides more cognitive reserve), being male or female, systolic blood pressure over 140 mg Hg, total cholesterol over 250 mg/dl, and physical activity level.

Though their cognition tested as normal, the study participants did show a minor slip in cognitive testing to be included in the study.

They then had half the group be involved in several factors to boost cognition and another group that received usual care and follow-up.

What was included?

Strength Training and Aerobic Exercise

Diverse physical activity should include both muscle training (1 – 3 times per week) and aerobic exercises (2 – 5 times per week). Training should be individually tailored and progressive.

Exercises to improve postural balance should be included. They tailored the exercise to fit the person – so that they were motivated and participating supported mental wellbeing and social activity.

Safety issues should be taken into account. What does this mean? Some went to the gym, some walked the neighborhood, some participated in classes.

Healthy Dietary Patterns

Healthy diet can protect the brain as well as blood vessels. Diet should be rich in fruits and vegetables, wholegrain cereal products, and fish. They had people commit to fish at two meals per week.

Low-fat options should be chosen in milk and meat, and aim should be to lower sugar and salt consumption. Vegetable oils are recommended instead of butter. They found small changes make the difference.

Cognitive Activity

Memory needs long-term, regular and challenging activity. Learning new things and engaging in hobbies that support mental wellbeing and social activity are good for the brain.

In the study, the individuals went to lectures on brain health and adapting strategies for common brain complaints.  They also had people engage in computer games to stimulate the brain.

The Finnish government now recommends activities that stimulate the brain such as listening to and playing music, learning new languages, reading and playing games. If you know you have cognitive loss, I would recommend finding a cognitive stimulation therapy program near you.

Monitoring Cardiovascular Risk Factors

The individuals in the study were monitored closely for cardiovascular risk factors – high blood pressure, increased body mass index, elevated cholesterol, and waist and hip measurement.  These occurred every 3 months for the 2 years.

The study personnel strongly encourage individuals to contact their physician if any of these numbers were not in line with national guidelines for lower cardiovascular health.

Imagine What’s Possible

Imagine if you were updated on your cardiovascular health every 3 months – would that motivate you? Or annoy you?  Think about that. And why?

You don’t need to see a doctor to have these checks.  You could do them for yourself.  I know just by preparing for this event, I’ve recommitted to checking on myself.

Management of cardiovascular and metabolic risk factors should be based on national evidence-based guidelines. Regular measurements of blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol level are recommended if you are at high risk for high blood pressure, high blood sugars, or diabetes and high cholesterol.

Answering the Question

Neon Question Mark
Photo by Simone Secci on Unsplash

Ok – so was it worth it?  Changing their diets, exercise their bodies and brains  and monitoring (and doing something) about their cardiovascular risk?

The answer is a whopping YES!

Their cognitive function improved  – not just did not decline – improved! By what? By 25%! Honestly, that is unbelievably high!  And unbelievably encouraging!!

Specifically, what improved?

  • Executive function – that part of our brain we use for planning.
  • Processing speed – so that you can keep up with conversations and stay engaged.
  • Complex memory tasks – so that you can hold several ideas together to complete a task.

This information blew me away 7 years ago, but honestly, I had forgotten how incredible the results are.

It has me thinking of so many people living with dementia that are advocating for dementia at the international level – Kate Swaffer, Christine Bryden, and Greg O’Brien as examples.  They seem to maintain their cognitive function so well.  I see why!  They take caring for themselves seriously and remain cognitively engaged through their advocacy work.

I love a good happy ending story!  Take care of yourself – there is proof it will pay off!


Dr Anne Kenny on Dementia MapAnne Kenny, MD
Together in Dementia

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