Frequently Asked Questions
Q What is the Your Brain Matters program?
A The Your Brain Matters program is Alzheimer’s Australia’s brain health and dementia risk reduction program, which guides you on how to look after your brain health. It is based on scientific evidence that a number of health and lifestyle factors are associated with brain function and the risk of developing dementia. Being brain healthy is relevant at any age, whether you’re young, old or in between
Q Why did Alzheimer’s Australia develop the Your Brain Matters program?
A Alzheimer’s Australia is committed to valuing and supporting people with dementia, as well as to doing all it can to help prevent dementia. We know that the changes in the brain that result in dementia may start decades before any symptoms appear and that following a ‘brain-healthy’ lifestyle may reduce the risk of developing dementia or delay its onset. People need to know what a ‘brain-healthy’ lifestyle is, that it’s important throughout life, and that it’s particularly important once middle age and beyond is reached. We developed the Your Brain Matters program to provide the Australian community with this information.
Furthermore, a shift in public awareness of dementia and risk reduction through this program has the potential to help millions of Australians to reduce their risk of dementia, which could result in significant savings to the health system.
Q Who is the Your Brain Matters program aimed at?
A Following a brain healthy lifestyle is important throughout all stages of life, but particularly important from midlife onwards. Research shows that the changes in the brain that result in dementia may start decades before any symptoms appear. So it’s important for people in midlife to be aware of what they can do to reduce their risk of dementia and commit to living a brain healthy life.
Q How is ‘midlife’ defined?
A A number of the risk factors for dementia, particularly vascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, have been shown to be of most relevance to dementia risk when measured at midlife. Midlife is considered to be people in their forties and fifties.
Q What about people who already have dementia, will the Your Brain Matters program be useful for them?
A Even though a person already has dementia, following the Your Brain Matters program is still useful for overall health and wellbeing. It may help someone with dementia to live healthier for longer.
Q Isn’t the Your Brain Matters program just like other public health programs?
A The Your Brain Matters program has been developed based on the evidence available for dementia risk reduction. A number of the key messages are similar to messages in other public health programs, but this is very positive because it means that the advice is beneficial for overall health, not just brain health. It is the focus on a healthy brain and the combination of healthy behaviours that sets the Your Brain Matters program apart from other programs.
Q My father/mother did all the right things and he/she still got dementia. Why?
A Unfortunately there are no guaranteed ways to prevent dementia. Evidence indicates that leading a brain-heart healthy lifestyle may help reduce your risk of developing dementia, but it can’t guarantee that you won’t get it. Doing all the right things may have helped him/her delay the onset of dementia and have more years of good health than they would have otherwise had.
Q Is the Your Brain Matters program useful for reducing risk of all forms of dementia?
A There is an increasing body of research to support making lifestyle changes to help reduce the risk of dementia. Studies of large groups of people do show that those who adopt ‘brain-healthy’ lifestyles have a reduced risk. Much research to date has focused on Alzheimer’s disease as the most common type of dementia, but there is also a lot of evidence that risk of dementia from other causes is lower in people who follow a brain healthy lifestyle.
Q If I follow the Your Brain Matters program does that mean that I won’t get dementia?
A Dementia cannot yet be prevented or cured. Following the Your Brain Matters program does not guarantee that you won’t develop dementia. The two biggest risk factors for dementia are genetics and age – two things you can’t do anything about. However, being brain-heart healthy may help to reduce the risk of developing dementia and may delay the onset of dementia. People who have followed a ‘brain-healthy’ lifestyle all of their lives can still get dementia.
Q Will keeping my brain active reduce my risk of dementia?
A The evidence shows that mentally stimulating activities can help to keep your brain healthy and that people who do more of them have a reduced risk of developing dementia. Older adults who engage in mentally challenging activities have better memory and other brain functions.
Q What brain exercises will be helpful/What brain exercises should I do?
A There is no evidence to suggest that any particular mental exercise is better than another. Alzheimer’s Australia recommends all sorts of brain exercises such as doing jigsaws, crosswords, sudoku, reading, learning a language, learning a musical instrument, visiting a museum, listening to the radio or enrolling in a new course. Our advice is that any type of mental activity may be beneficial, but it should be reasonably complex, frequent, varied and interesting. However, it is also wise not to take on anything which is so difficult that it makes you stressed and anxious.
Q What about a person who left school as a teenager, and then starts doing brain exercises in their 40’s or later. Will their risk of dementia be reduced?
A Research shows that people who take part in mentally stimulating activities through education, work or leisure have a reduced risk of dementia. It’s important for everyone regardless of their education level or age, to commit to keeping their brain active. We know that keeping your brain active is associated with reduced risk of developing dementia on average, but there is no guarantee for any individual.
Q Is it important to do new brain activities or is it okay to keep doing the same things?
A The research shows that challenging the brain in new ways helps to build up connections between brain cells and improves brain function. Like physical exercise, brain exercise should be done regularly and include a variety of activities. So keep doing things that you enjoy but also give new activities a go.
Q Will taking vitamin supplements help to reduce my risk of dementia?
A There is no evidence that any supplements can reduce the risk of dementia. The best source of vitamins is food. It’s important to eat a wide variety of foods to make sure you get adequate amounts of all the vitamins and minerals you need for good health. Speak with your doctor before taking vitamin supplements.
Q I’ve heard that taking Vitamin E supplements can help to reduce my risk of dementia, is this true?
A Some research studies have suggested that Vitamin E may help reduce the risk of dementia but other studies haven’t supported this. Based on current evidence, the recommendation is to obtain Vitamin E from foods rather than taking supplements. If you are thinking of taking Vitamin E supplements, check with your doctor first as taking too much can cause health problems and may interact negatively with certain medications.
Q Does eating some types of foods increase my risk of dementia?
A A high intake of saturated fats is known to be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and also vascular dementia. It’s important to reduce the amount of saturated fats you eat by choosing oils such as sunflower, safflower, olive and canola oils, using margarine spreads instead of butter, choosing reduced fat dairy products and lean meat and limiting pastries, cakes, biscuits and deep fried foods.
Q What about margarine – it’s a processed food so how can it be better than butter?
A Research shows that diets high in saturated fat are associated with an increased risk of dementia. Butter is high in saturated fat, whereas margarines made from polyunsaturated or monounsaturated oils are lower in saturated fat than butter. Choose margarines made from oils such as canola, olive, sunflower or safflower oils.
Some people think that margarine isn’t a healthy choice because margarines used to contain high levels of trans fats. Trans fats have similar effects on health to saturated fat and are not recommended. However, butter also contains trans fats and most margarines in Australia now contain only low levels of trans fats, so margarine is a healthier choice than butter.
Q I eat a lot of fish. Will this stop me from getting dementia?
A No food can prevent dementia. Some research has found that foods, such as fish, which are rich in omega-3 fats may help to reduce the risk of dementia, but there is no guarantee.
Q I’ve heard that certain herbs and spices help memory and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Is this true?
A Research studies are underway investigating the health benefits of certain herbs and spices. This research is very new and it’s impossible to say at this stage whether any of them are useful for dementia risk reduction. When it comes to herbs and spices the best advice is to use a variety in cooking as they may provide health benefits and they make food taste great.
Q Will throwing out my aluminium cookware lower my risk of dementia?
A There is no evidence that using aluminium cookware increases the risk of having dementia.
Q I’ve heard that green tea reduces dementia risk – is this true?
A Green tea contains antioxidants. Research shows that antioxidants may help to reduce the risk of developing dementia. All types of tea contain antioxidants – they just contain different antioxidants in different amounts. If you like green tea, then drink it.
Q Will drinking coffee have any effect on dementia?
A The general health recommendation for coffee is to drink it in moderation. The association between drinking coffee and developing or reducing the risk of dementia is still unclear.
Q What’s the link between antioxidants and dementia?
A There are many different types of antioxidants. Antioxidants are found in a range of food and drinks including fruit, vegetables, nuts, spices, vegetable oils, tea, fruit juices and wine. Research shows that antioxidants help to protect brain cells from being damaged and may help to reduce the risk of dementia.
Q What are trans fats and how are they produced?
A Trans fats are a type of fat that have similar effects on health to saturated fat – they increase total and LDL blood cholesterol and can also lower the good HDL cholesterol thereby increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and dementia. Trans fats are found naturally in the fat of ruminant animals like cattle, sheep and goats and they are also formed during hydrogenation - a process used to harden liquid vegetable oils into hard or semi-hard fats. Hydrogenated fats are used to make pastries, biscuits and cakes so these products will contain trans fats. It’s best to limit these types of foods.
Q Is there a relationship between folate and Vitamin B12 and dementia?
A Folate and Vitamin B12 are necessary for cell function and deficiencies have been associated with poorer brain function and dementia. Vitamin B12 and folate deficiencies are also associated with elevated levels of homocysteine.
Deficiencies of Vitamin B12 or Folate should be identified and treated medically.
It is not yet known whether Vitamin B12 or Folate supplementation will reduce the risk of developing dementia. Therefore it is recommended that people eat a variety of foods to ensure adequate folate and Vitamin B12 intakes, rather than taking supplements. Anyone considering taking supplements should first check with their doctor.
Food sources of folate include: Green leafy vegetables (such as broccoli and spinach), some fruits and dried beans and peas. Food sources of Vitamin B12 include: Milk, yoghurt and cheese, Meat, chicken and fish, Eggs and foods with added Vitamin B12 e.g. some soy milks.
Q What is homocysteine and how is it related to dementia?
A Homocysteine is an amino acid in the blood. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Studies have shown that high levels of homocysteine in the blood are associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Too much homocysteine in the blood is also related to a higher risk of heart disease, stroke and blood vessel disease. Adequate intakes of folate, Vitamin B6 and B12 can help to reduce high levels of homocysteine.
Q I’ve heard that taking Ginkgo biloba reduces dementia risk- is this true?
A Results from research studies investigating the effect of Ginkgo biloba on dementia risk have been mixed. Recent studies indicate that Ginkgo biloba doesn’t reduce the risk of dementia. Anyone thinking of taking Ginkgo biloba should check with their doctor first as it may interfere with some medications and it can have side effects.
Q How often and how much should you exercise?
A Being active on most, preferably all days of the week for at least 30 minutes is recommended for general good health and to reduce your risk of developing dementia. This activity can be done in one block or three bouts of 10 minutes and you will still get health benefits.
Q What type of physical activity is best for reducing the risk of dementia?
A All types of activities are recommended including walking, cycling, dancing, swimming, yoga, pilates, playing sport, having a gym workout, doing housework and gardening. Doing something you enjoy and will be happy to stick at is important.
Q What aspects of health need to be monitored for dementia risk reduction?
A The key health issues that need to be monitored are: blood pressure, blood cholesterol, blood sugar and body weight. It’s important to have these checked by your doctor and if any of them are too high, to make sure they are treated and managed well.
Q What about low blood pressure – does that affect the risk of developing dementia?
A Current research shows that high blood pressure in midlife is a risk factor for dementia and that treatment of high blood pressure helps to reduce the risk of developing dementia. There is also some evidence that low blood pressure in later life may increase dementia risk but at this stage, the evidence is much stronger for high blood pressure. People should see their doctor to have their blood pressure checked and if it’s high make sure it is treated.
Q Does cholesterol affect the risk of developing dementia?
A High cholesterol in midlife is associated with an increased risk of developing dementia. People who have reached middle age should speak with their doctor about their holesterol level and whether it is in the healthy range for them.
Q Is there any link between taking hormone therapy for menopause and risk of developing dementia?
A While there are some conflicting research findings, at this stage the evidence suggests that taking hormone therapy at menopause may reduce the risk of developing dementia. The research also suggests that starting hormone therapy later in life may be detrimental. There is not enough evidence to recommend hormone therapy at menopause for the prevention of dementia. Women are advised to speak with their doctor about whether hormone therapy is useful for them.
Q What about depression?
A Depression may be a risk factor for dementia. When talking about depression we mean when a person is feeling very low, sad or moody for long periods of time and when these feelings are very intense. Everyone will have low points, feel sad or have mood changes throughout their lives - this isn’t depression. As yet, no study has shown that treatment of depression reduces the risk of developing dementia. However, depression is a very serious illness and it is associated with an increased risk of dementia. People experiencing or showing signs of depression should see their doctor as it is important to identify and treat depression.
Q Is keeping an active social life good for your brain?
A Yes. Research shows that people who are more socially engaged have a lower risk of dementia. Social connections contribute to a healthy brain, so stay socially engaged in activities that exercise the mind and body to reduce your risk of dementia.
Q What sorts of social activities may be helpful for a healthy brain?
A All types of social activities are useful. Involve yourself in activities that interest you and that you enjoy. Examples include joining a club, church or interest group, spending time with friends or relatives, doing volunteer work, playing cards, or going dancing.
Q What about people who are happy to be on their own and don’t like to socialise?
A Research shows that people who are more socially engaged have a lower risk of dementia. However, being socially connected is only one factor that may help reduce the risk of developing dementia. Other factors include staying mentally active, eating healthily, being physically active, managing blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and weight, not smoking and drinking alcohol in moderation. If a person is happy with their own company then it’s important for them to focus on other factors for reducing dementia risk and to join in social activities when they want.
Q Does drinking alcohol protect you from getting dementia?
A A high intake of alcohol increases your risk of developing dementia. If you drink alcohol, a moderate intake of alcohol may lower the risk of dementia. However, there is no evidence to suggest that non-drinkers should take up drinking alcohol.
Q What type of alcohol is best to drink?
A The health benefits associated with moderate alcohol intake, such as reduced risk of developing dementia, come from any type of alcohol. If you drink alcohol, then choose the type of alcohol that you enjoy drinking but only drink in moderation.
Q Will I get alcohol related dementia if I drink alcohol?
A Alcohol related dementia is caused by excessive drinking of alcohol over a long period of time. Drinking alcohol in moderation, that is no more than two standard drinks per day, will not cause alcohol related dementia.
Q If I give up smoking will it stop me getting dementia?
A Quitting smoking will help to reduce your risk of developing dementia as well as your risk of a range of other chronic diseases. It’s important to remember that there are a number of risk factors for dementia, of which smoking is only one. So quitting smoking can’t guarantee that you won’t get dementia.
Q I’ve heard that nicotine improves brain function so why isn’t smoking recommended?
A Some research studies suggest that nicotine may have short term benefits for brain health. While this may be the case, it must be remembered that any benefit from nicotine in cigarettes is far outweighed by the harmful effects of cigarettes. Smoking is associated with an increased risk of dementia as well as a range of other chronic diseases.
Q What about illegal drugs?
A We don’t know yet what effect taking illegal drugs has on your risk of developing dementia. Not enough research has been done to give us the answers. We do know that certain illegal drugs can have a negative effect on brain function, however their long term effects on different aspects of brain function are not well known.
Q Does stress increase dementia risk?
A At this stage, there is little evidence that stress increases the risk of dementia. Alzheimer’s Australia suggests that people seek medical advice if they are having significant problems with stress.
Q Will using a mobile phone increase my risk of dementia?
A There is no evidence that using a mobile phone increases the risk of dementia.
Q I’ve heard that exposure to electromagnetic radiation from electrical tools is linked to dementia?
A There is some evidence that exposure to strong electromagnetic radiation is linked to an increased risk of dementia. Most modern machinery and tools used today have well shielded motors so exposure to electromagnetic radiation is unlikely to be a problem. When using electrical machinery or tools it is recommended to use those with shielded electric motors where possible.
Q What is the evidence for risk reduction?
A Numerous research studies exist and more are in progress investigating what can be done to reduce the risk of dementia. A team of eminent Australian geriatricians and psychogeriatricians have reviewed the available evidence and summarised the various lifestyle factors that may reduce the risk or delay the onset of dementia. Much of the evidence is based on population studies involving large groups of people, and indicates that on average those who adopt a ‘brain healthy’ lifestyle have a reduced risk. More details can be found in Alzheimer’s Australia’s Paper 29, Targeting brain, body and heart for cognitive health and dementia prevention, September 2012.
Q Why is dementia risk reduction so important?
A Dementia is fast becoming the health epidemic of the 21st Century. Greater awareness of risk reduction factors could assist in slowing the growth of the disease. The projections are concerning:
Dementia is a significant and escalating health, social, and economic problem and risk reduction awareness could prove a key to slowing the increase in dementia.
Q What are the risk factors for dementia?
A The two biggest risk factors are genetics and age – two things people can’t do anything about, but there are risk factors that people can change.
These include:Lack of mental stimulation/activity High saturated fat diet Physical inactivity Untreated high blood pressure Untreated high cholesterol Untreated diabetes Being obese or underweight Lack of social connections Smoking