New research shows that your job might be giving you dementia

It's 3pm and you're at your desk when the mid-afternoon slump hits. Despite getting eight hours sleep, you're still tired and reach for your third coffee. You'll probably take work home with you, stopping only for dinner before plunging back into the digital mountain of unread emails.

Sound familiar? For millions of Australians, this is a regular occurrence. Working long hours may be one way to climb the corporate ladder, but it's a lifestyle that can have an affect on your diet, social life and sleeping patterns; and a precursor to the second leading cause of death in Australia; dementia.

"You really start to compound and increase your dementia risk from mid life," explains Dr.Andrew McKinnon, CogSleep Research Fellow and Neuropsychology Registrar, The University of Sydney. "The more you put off or not find time [for exercise], you're really doing yourself a disservice – it is likely to catch up with you later on."

"[Males] tend to have a higher blood pressure, increasing risk of heart attack and stroke. Changes in metabolism in midlife are linked to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and so on, which increase your risk of developing dementia by 26 per cent." 

Let's get physical

The benefits of regular exercise have been known for decades; but the impact exercise has on brain function later in life is only now being explored. Sacrifices to physical and mental health may be par for the course with an executive-level career, but need not pose a threat to long-term health. 

"Just try and get in a few sessions of exercise a week, because exercise can release brain chemicals called neurotrophins, a family of proteins that protect and support your brain."

The demon drink

We can also often be our own worst enemy.

"Men often self-medicate with binge-drinking," said D. McKinnon. "[But alcohol] is a neurotoxin and can increase the risk of dementia."

It's a modern-day catch-22 - the crutches you use to cope with stress actually make it worse. Throw in a decrease in physical activity and social interaction, and these factors can give rise to chronic conditions, like depression – a significant risk factor for developing dementia.


A social solution

Fortunately, it's possible to combat a complex malady with a compounded solution:

"A healthy way to combine all of this is to exercise in a social environment," said Dr. McKinnon. "Joining a sports club, for example – a couple of nights a week - can be perfect."

"If you can make some kind of schedule for an activity around other people, just having that social and support structure goes a long way to warding off some of the more toxic effects of depression – like no motivation to work or not getting any pleasure out of it, or other pleasurable activities, when you usually do."

"All this comes down to making sure you pay attention to any depressive symptoms and reach out to somebody who can help you protect your mental health and wellness."

Recent studies conducted by the Alzheimer's Association show adopting four to five healthy lifestyle changes reduced the risk of Alzheimer's dementia by 60 per cent compared to adopting none or only one factor. 

Brain gym

These studies also found that Alzheimer's and other dementias begin to appear earlier in life than once believed. Men in young to mid-life are in a prime position to begin taking preventative steps now, rather than when symptoms - like memory loss – appear later. Luckily, memory and other brain functions are skills we can always develop.

"We've known for a while that the brain is capable of changing and growing new connections – a process called neuroplasticity," said Dr. McKinnon. "Such a process is as a result of engaging your mind and stimulating it with an enjoyable and challenging activity."

"A classic example of this is learning a new language – it challenges your brain in a way it's not typically challenged. Chess is another classic example, because not only is it cognitively stimulating, but you also have the social aspect as well."

Counting sheep

By far one of the largest factors affecting brain health from middle age is sleep, or lack thereof. As the saying goes, you can never repay a sleep debt. 

"Year on year, our understanding of the importance of sleep grows," said Dr. McKinnon. "Maintaining a good night's sleep and keeping a regular sleep schedule are crucial for optimising brain function and managing your dementia risk. This can be especially true if you have undiagnosed sleep apnoea, which is quite common among middle-aged men."

"Cardinal symptoms are general daytime lethargy, breathing reduces or stops during the night, snoring a lot, waking up not feeling refreshed, or daytime sleeping. Have you been asleep for seven or eight hours and should feel refreshed, but you don't? If left untreated, this can significantly increase the risk of developing dementia.

"Prevention is much easier than management, as there is no current cure for dementia," says Dr. McKinnon. 

"Visit your doctor to get a general health check, to get blood work done, and pay attention to your mental health. If you're doing that on a regular basis, you're being quite proactive about your future."

Consult your doctor if you feel your physical and mental health needs assessment. Contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 if you'd like help managing depression.