The biggest risk factor for dementia is getting older. If we can slow our biological ageing process down then we might also be able to delay dementia and slow its progress. Research shows that there are 3 things we need:
- A healthy diet and active life style
- Staying socially connected
- Keeping our brains active and learning
Brisk walking comes up time and time again as a simple but highly effective way of getting and staying healthy and the fantastic news is that it’s never too late to make a difference. Studies on women and men aged 60 – 80 years old found a short walk 3 times a week over a year increased the size of brain regions linked to planning and memory and reversed the normal shrinking that happens in our brains as we age. This is quite remarkable stuff! Brain shrinkage with ageing isn’t inevitable; even if we can’t turn back time, we can slow down how quickly our brains and bodies age and it doesn’t take a lot of sweaty work! Click on the link for an article about brain age.
Walking has really important social effects too. Social isolation and feelings of loneliness are a major issue for people affected by dementia and many older people and people of all ages with mental health problems too. Often friends and networks gradually disappear – someone loses a job or friends are unsure what to do or say. People are frightened of dementia and don’t understand it. As dementia progresses, people with dementia often go out less, meet friends less, stop doing the things they enjoy and become increasingly isolated. This makes the symptoms of dementia worse and can lead to depression. A recent Scottish Parliament Report outlined the problems of social isolation for all age groups.
Walking is a great way to stay part of things and keeping your brain active. It’s a way of getting out and about, of continuing to do the everyday things like shopping and having a daily constitutional. It brings social contacts – people to say hello to and pass the time of day with. It’s an easy way of building relationships, friendships and a sense of being part of the community. Walking brings us into contact with nature, with shops and services and helps us be part of the world around us. Walking is an antidote to social isolation and loneliness and keeps our brains working.
Living with dementia can make it harder to be out and about. Cognitive impairments with memory, judgement and planning make it hard to find your way around; to learn new routes or cope when bus timetables or technology change. Having problems with things you used to do without thinking shakes confidence and can leave people feeling anxious, judged and frightened. The pace of life, impatience, the busy-ness of pavements or heavy traffic all undermine confidence. Carers and others often worry about people wth dementia getting lost and may try and stop people getting outside, especially unaccompanied.
Despite the increasing difficulties, people living with dementia work hard to keep going out and about for as long as they can, to the shops, Post Office and just to walk – like everyone else. People develop strategies, using familiar landmarks to find their way round; asking people for directions; using whatever information they have available to them as their memory declines.
There are lots of ways we can help. Walking together to the shops or for a stroll can be a way of being a husband and wife or mother and daughter again instead of a carer and cared for person – a way of maintaining that important relationship even for a little while. There’s lots to talk about as you walk round. Walking groups like Ageing Well East Lothian and Changes Walking and Healthy Living Programmes and of course the Countryside Rangers and University of the Third Age – U3A are also great for people who want companionship, wildlife or even art with their walking. New technology has great potential. These days most of us carry phones with us as a matter of course. Our friends in Highland developed BOB a GPS tracking system for people with dementia which has looked at the ethical and legal issues around tracking people. And there are other devices available!
Dementia Friendly Communities can play a major role in helping people with dementia to continue to get out and about. Because it’s about our community then all we have to do is to be more friendly and understanding when folks are struggling or taking a bit longer. Cost of a smile? Not a penny! Every kind act will make people with dementia feel more part of our community, it really is that simple. And everyone benefits.
We can do more to make our communities dementia friendly. There’s a range of Dementia Environmental Audit Tools which we hope our planners will use when they are designing streets and buildings. We’re also developing tools for people to use in their own home. And there will soon be a scheme for Dementia Friendly shops and services so people are more confident about how they will be treated – watch this space in 2016!
Dementia is about everyone. A healthy old age starts from the very youngest of days. If we really want to tackle dementia and give future generations the best chances of a healthy old age, then we need to help them start young. It might prevent some people from getting dementia and slow down or delay it for others. It’s also a great way of reducing the risk of many of the conditions that threaten future younger generations. It also brings the generations together. creating happy memories for all. I went walking with my Grandad, it gave me a love of walking for my whole life and precious time with a grown up who gave me a different view of life and of myself. Tome together is the greatest gift we can give our children and grandchildren too.
Wishing you all a very Happy New Year, thank you to everyone for being Dementia Friendly in 2015. Here’s to even more dementia friendliness in 2016. And please give a smile and a wave if we see each other out walking!