Nurturing A Healthy Mind To Avoid Dementia - 6 Tips

A significant number of people around the globe have dementia, and it is expected that this number will continue to grow as the world continues to age. Diagnosis of dementia can make one’s life challenging, but there’s one thing you need to remember: dementia does not have to be an unavoidable consequence of ageing.

The brain is a complex organ that is very sensitive to biological changes that happen in our body as we age, leading to brain deterioration. This deterioration is known as a relative “age-related cognitive decline”, and is the reason why so many people become forgetful, have difficulty navigating in space or experience slowness of thinking as they age. We are going to talk about how you can prevent and slow down this deterioration by making important lifestyle changes.

We will look at seven scientifically validated ways to prevent dementia. 

How to achieve neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form and reorganise synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience, or following an injury. Neuroplasticity is a type of ‘healing’ that our brain performs in response to some brain changes. The first thing we need to understand about neuroplasticity is that it can be achieved at any age. In fact, past and present neuroscience research demonstrates that we can live with a brain that is able to function similarly to when we were younger. Research conducted by Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist and researcher of the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training made clear that neuroplasticity is a capacity that can be achieved at any age simply by brain training. Indeed, his pioneering research demonstrated how patients could transform their brains to achieve astonishing levels of functioning, showing brain capacities that are similar to those of younger generations.

More recent studies suggest that the belief that as we age, we experience a  broader decline of our mental abilities might not always be seen for some cognitive functions. Indeed, recent findings published in Nature Human Behaviour scientific journal show that there are critical brain functions that can actually improve with ageing! The study demonstrated that capacities such as space orientation, direction of attention to new information and executive inhibition, the ability to focus on important aspects of a situation and ignore distractions can improve as we age (Verssimo et al., 2021).

To achieve neuroplasticity, it is necessary to train the brain. Brain neuroplasticity is achieved through the brain's power and the motivation we have to either train a new cognitive ability or retrain outdated behaviours. To understand neuroplasticity we need to understand that neuroplasticity is the modus operandi of the brain. It is how the brain works.  For example, bad habits are just the function of the repeated behaviours leading to those habits and the reason it may be hard to break from those. Our brain has become entrained automatically to act upon these brain networks as they are internally evoked. So to the same extent that we can imprint bad habits to our behaviours, just by repetition, we can sharpen the brain's perception, memory, increase our speed of thought, and even learn to heal ourselves by avoiding stress and emotional automatised compulsions (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis). And for neuroplasticity to take effect, we are only required to apply consistent training or practice to learn new things or overcome old behaviours. This is essentially the process by which we can improve our cognitive ability and keep our minds healthy and sharp at all times.

It is simple but very effective. Achieving neuroplasticity means changing the physical structure and function of our brain.  Indeed, studies have shown that mental training is associated with increased Acetylcholine neurotransmitters in the brain, a chemical essential for learning. Moreover, training is able to increase the brain weight by up to 5 % by increasing by 25 per cent the number of neural ramifications in brain areas associated with the training, increasing the number of connections, as well as the blood supply in these areas. And in fact, studies in rats have indicated that such enriched environments and increased levels of stimulation could achieve similar effects (Doidge, 2008). And this happens at any age where training is performed and gives us hope that we can actually improve our mental capacities, and keep ourselves mentally fit for life.

So what does that mean in terms of a healthy mind? It means to entrained curiosity. To be a student of life. To learn new abilities, and be motivated to learn new behaviours and to unlearn others. Questioning answers we once accepted as true and changing our minds about things. Being open to being wrong and as such constantly learning. Giving us the means of experiencing more things and enriched environments that stimulate our cognition and engage our emotions and motivation and as such lead the brain to grow.

Keeping motivated at work

Work is a fundamental part of our life. Keeping motivated with the work we do is also a fundamental aspect of keeping a healthy brain, mostly because of the amount of time we will engage in that activity throughout our life. As such, finding a job that is purposeful and has meaning is essential. In fact, it is an essential condition of our physiological makeup. 

Indeed, our brains are driven to learn new skills, take on new challenges, and are stimulate us to be more productive. These behaviours are linked with what is called the seeking system and are associated with the release of dopamine - a neurotransmitter that’s linked to motivation and pleasure. As a matter of fact, following these urges lead to increase dopamine levels which are associated with increased zestfulness, purposefulness and focus on a task. Although it may seem not to do much for neuroplasticity, it does play a role to maintain a healthy brain by keeping us motivated to explore, creatively solve problems at work, and learn - which should be what working life is supposed to be - and as such neuroplasticity.

How does this relate to avoiding dementia? Although dopamine has had a bad press because it is associated with addiction and seeking pleasure, in fact, dopamine is essential to increase motivation, supporting brain networks for seeking, evaluating, valuing learning and increasing alertness (Bromberg-Martin et al., 2010) all of which are essential aspects of keeping brain health to avoid dementia. Furthermore, dementia is associated with disorders of the basal ganglia which is a region rich in dopamine neurons and dopamine release - as a function of the above behaviours - increases the healthy activity of the basal pathways (Vitanova et al., 2019), which does not help helps with motivation but also working memory and decision making.

Doing meditation and yoga

Meditation has seen a growing trend of interest with millions of people around the world seeking to calm down their minds and their emotions through centuries-old practices. And certainly, the practice of meditation has been scientifically proven to help our mind and body, even our brain.

Many scientific studies have concluded that the practice of meditation can achieve wonders for the brain such as increase internetwork integration, allowing different areas of the brain to work together more efficiently, increasing regional brain gray matter density, specifically through Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) interventions, or increasing the processing speed of the brain following a 2-month focused attention meditation (FAM) practice, and many others. And indeed, such conditions are essential not only for maintaining a healthy mind but to instigate positive neuroprotective brain health effects, if not mental clarity and a more centred personality (Dwivedi et al.,2021). 

Indeed, mind-body practices such as mindfulness have demonstrated their benefit in many studies reducing stress levels, improving health, and increasing energy levels through better breathing. Worth noting is that these applications are applicable to people of all ages but are mostly good for brain health.

How does one increase beige fat or adipocyte cells?

Adipocyte cells (beige fat), are today considered to have anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects, unlike the more known white fat. Indeed, if visceral obesity increases the risk of cognitive decline in humans (see Article: Risk Factors for Dementia), subcutaneous adiposity does not. Indeed, recent research published in Nature Communication, indicated that adipocytes are able to restore hippocampal synaptic plasticity (Guo et al., 2021). But how can one increase these? Well, beige adipocytes are known to mediate interactions with immune cells promoting anti-inflammatory properties, most specifically the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-4 in the subcutaneous adipose tissue (SAT) fat, which can be can be stimulated and through cold exposure (Guo et al., 2021). 

Basically, increase exposure to cold temperatures, such as gradually exposing ourselves to cold showers or immersing ourselves in cold baths, as demonstrated in animal studies, can help you achieve these reactions. Indeed, subjects subjected to daily cold temperature exposure of 19°C for 2 h have shown increase activation of brown fat (Yoneshiro et al., 2013).

Improving our gut flora

Gut microbiota, gut flora, or microbiome are microorganisms including bacteria, archaea and fungi, that live in the digestive tracts. And there are a number of ways that our microbiome influences human brain health. One such way is associated with the fact that gut bacteria can directly stimulate the brain via the vagus nerve and alterations of the microbiota have been suggested to have a key involvement in the pathogenesis of several diseases, including dementia and Alzheimer's Disease as well as Parkinson's (Giuffre et al., 2020). More so, microbes in our gut, living by the billions, can metabolise tryptophan (Tryptophan is an α-amino acid that is used in the biosynthesis of proteins) as well as secreting indoles, which help in the formation of new neurons (neurogenesis) and as such have the potential to restore nerve cells after damage and inhibit memory loss (Wei et al., 2021). These studies do indeed highlight the importance of lifestyle factors and diet as important vectors for keeping or improving brain health and indeed improving our gut flora as a treatment opportunity to avoid dementia.

Physical activity for reducing dementia

In the absence of recognised treatments to prevent dementia, increasing research has been laid to identify and modify relevant factors and lifestyle behaviours that would have an impact on preventing cognitive ageing. One such area of research that has been continuously providing insight into its importance for cognitive health is associated with physical activity. Indeed, if prior studies have consistently suggested physical activity in older adults can promote healthier grey matter and white matter in the brain as well as improved hippocampus function - a complex brain structure embedded deep into the temporal lobe and associated with memory (impacted in dementia) -, a more recent study looking at post-mortem at Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has indeed provided further evidence of the importance of exercising to prevent cognitive ageing. Participants of the research which has been going on since 1997 used fitness trackers to compare how much they exercise with differences in cognitive abilities between older participants. Comparing the data, the researchers were able once more to further correlate the level of physical activity that was associated with increased cognition in older adults as well as motor abilities (Dawe et al., 2021).

Furthermore, MRI analysis highlighted increased periventricular white matter and hippocampus, while the other encompassed white matter of the occipital lobe (associated with visual perception and cognition) showing overall a lower level of neurodegeneration and vascular pathologies (Dawe et al., 2021).

Another recent study indicated that secreted hormone mediators irisin, secreted by muscles during exercise, could in itself be enough to drive the cognitive benefits of exercise showing great promise for the treatment of cognitive decline in ageing (Islam et al., 2021). Indeed, increased irisin expression in the liver delivered showed it was sufficient to improve both the cognitive deficit and neuropathology of dementia in animal models.


In this day and age, there are few things more precious than our minds. A healthy mind is the most precious thing one can have. It is what makes a happy life possible. It is the reason why we are able to do so much in life: succeed at work, start a business, raise children, create art... all the things important enough to make our existence meaningful. And certainly, a healthy mind, or how we deal with our thoughts and emotions, as much as the behaviour they lead us to act on, is what guides us to have a healthy brain.

This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Rodrigo Montenegro

Master of Science - MSc. Neuroscience, Universidad Isabel I, Spain

Rodrigo Montenegro is a Neuroscientist with Sleep Medicine specialization from Oxford University. Rodrigo has worked as a lead Neuroscientist developing a clinical grade sleep-headband and as a consultant in applied medical neuromodulation technologies.

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