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Staying healthy with dementia

Dementia is a progressive condition and currently, there is no cure. However, with some simple steps, the person with dementia can stay physically and mentally healthy for as long as possible and maintain a good quality of life.

A healthy, balanced diet will help to keep the person with dementia in good physical health.

It will reduce the risk of developing or worsening conditions like diabetes, heart disease and stroke, which may have a negative effect on their symptoms. It will also help them maintain a healthy weight.

For most people, a healthy diet includes:

  • fruit and vegetables – aim for at least five portions a day
  • starchy food like bread, rice, pasta and potatoes – these should make up around a third of your daily diet
  • meat/meat substitutes and other sources of protein, eg lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans and pulses, and vegetarian/vegan alternatives. Try to limit processed meat like sausages, bacon and ham
  • dairy or dairy alternatives, eg milk, cheese, yoghurt, fromage frais, soya milk
  • small amounts of fats, oils and spreads – ideally unsaturated versions such as vegetable, sunflower or olive oil

Food and drinks that are high in fat, sugar or salt – such as crisps, cakes, sweets, biscuits, butter, ice cream and sugary soft drinks – should be consumed less often and in smaller amounts.

The NHS Eatwell Guide is a helpful tool for following a healthy diet, and you can also read our guide to eating and drinking for people with dementia.

The person should aim to drink 1.5 litres of fluid a day (about six to eight glasses) – this can include water, tea, coffee, squash, fruit juice and milk. If they struggle to drink enough, our information on good hydration may help.

Alcohol should be kept to a minimum – there are many good alternatives, including low-or zero-alcohol wine, beer and spirits, and mocktails. For advice on drinking safely, please visit Drinkaware.

As far as possible, a person with dementia should be supported to be physically active. Exercise has physical health benefits, can boost mood and often provides vital social contact.

Good forms of exercise include:

  • walking/dog walking
  • running
  • swimming
  • cycling
  • yoga
  • Pilates
  • Tai Chi
  • group exercise classes, eg Zumba, keep fit or aqua aerobics
  • dancing
  • housework and gardening

In some areas, there are specific fitness activities for people with dementia, such as dementia-friendly exercise classes or swimming sessions – contact your local leisure centre to see what is available.

People with young onset dementia (where symptoms develop before the age of 65) in particular may be fit and active already. If they like to run or cycle but may become confused or disorientated if they go out alone, teaming up with an ‘exercise buddy’ or joining a club can be helpful.

If the person with dementia has mobility problems, you can still support them to take gentle exercise, for example chair-based exercises, stretches, or just a walk around the house or garden.

Bear in mind that too much physical activity can be tiring for a person with dementia, so it is important to strike a balance.

To help the person with dementia maintain their physical health, they should:

  • attend any recommended health checks, eg blood pressure and blood tests, breast screening and bowel cancer screening
  • take any medication as prescribed and attend regular reviews
  • report any changes in physical or mental health or their dementia symptoms to their GP
  • keep up to date with dental, hearing and eyesight checks
  • make sure they receive the annual flu jab
  • stop smoking – the NHS offers stop smoking advice, or you can ask the GP for support
  • Encourage the person to participate in activities and interests – these may be activities that they have always enjoyed (with adaptations, if necessary) or new ones
  • Follow a consistent daily/weekly routine – this can help the person feel settled and avoid unexpected events that may cause distress
  • Sleep disturbances are common in dementia, but try to support the person to get enough sleep – too little could affect their cognitive function, concentration and mood. You could try our tips for good sleep
  • Adapt social situations so they are easier to manage – for example, you could scale down gatherings to a few people at a time or provide a quiet ‘breakaway’ space at larger get-togethers like weddings
  • Adapt the person’s home to make it as safe and comfortable as possible.
  • Join local or online support groups and clubs: you can ask your GP, social worker or local council about groups in your area, or contact our Helpline for information.

Mood changes are common in dementia, so it is important to offer the person mental and emotional support so they can live as well as possible with the diagnosis.

  • Focus on the person’s strengths rather than on their limitations
  • Work together to create a ‘life story’: a record of the person’s past and present life and future wishes. This can help trigger memories, boost self-esteem, and help the person think about what matters to them
  • Maintain social contact, eg by spending time with family, friends and pets; taking part in groups and activities; visiting day centres or memory cafés; going on day trips; or being supported by a volunteer or befriender
  • Sensory stimulation can help with relaxation and wellbeing – for example, listening to music; looking at photos or art; a hand massage with a fragranced lotion; a scented bath; or holding something comforting like a soft blanket, doll or cuddly toy
  • Support the person to maintain their independence with everyday living activities, including their employment if they still work
  • Have a family conversation about the person’s future care, including advance care planning and lasting power of attorney: this can provide peace of mind about the future and enable the person to communicate their wishes before it becomes difficult to do so
  • Focus on achievable daily goals (eg, “Today, I will do the shopping”), not ambitious long-term ones
  • If the person is experiencing ongoing low mood or anxiety, please speak to their GP. It is often thought that people with dementia cannot experience anxiety or depression, but this is not the case, so it is important to seek support

Call the Dementia UK Helpline

Our free, confidential Dementia Helpline is staffed by our dementia specialist Admiral Nurses who provide information, advice and support with any aspect of dementia.

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