You probably either know or know of someone who developed dementia as they got older. Alzheimer’s disease – the most common form of dementia – is feared by more adults than any other illness. But dementia is not inevitable. While you may not be able to guarantee how your mind will function in the future, there’s much you can do to effectively prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
“Senior moments” may lead many middle-aged individuals to worry if these are early signs of dementia. Forgetting where you left your keys or missing an appointment because you forgot can be scary. It’s reassuring to know that most people experience such “senior moments” as they get older, and only rarely do these indicate impending dementia. There’s no need to worry unless these are accompanied by other more serious symptoms, or they begin to affect your daily functioning. Other people who know you well can also provide feedback; if your spouse notices a personality change, or if your coworkers are concerned that you’re no longer doing your job adequately, it’s time for further evaluation.
Alzheimer’s disease is a complex disorder involving the death of brain cells. Tangles involving the neurons in the brain, deposits of abnormal proteins such as amyloid, and other specific changes all contribute to this cell death. As more brain cells die, the remaining brain cells eventually become unable to pick up important functions such as memory, communication, and judgment.
Genetics plays a role in some cases of Alzheimer’s disease. Only 5% of Alzheimer’s is so-called early onset (before age 60), and associated with one of three known genetic defects. In most cases your genetic heritage may affect the vulnerability of your brain cells to various lifestyle or environmental insults, but usually there’s much you can do to delay or perhaps prevent the loss of brain function that happens with dementia.
Remember, not all dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. And some medication side effects, certain other medical illnesses, and even severe emotional distress can often mimic many of the symptoms of dementia. And dementia is expensive. The National Institutes of Health reports that direct costs for health care and personal care for those with dementia total about $200 billion each year, greater than the costs for heart disease or cancer.
All these factors should appropriately make you and I, and society, interested in doing all we can to prevent dementia. Research is not definitive in many of these areas, but the evidence is quite convincing that these measures will keep your brain healthier longer.
Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease
- Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and don’t smoke. What’s good for your heart is also good for your brain. Vegetables, fruits, and regular exercise protect the blood vessels in your brain, and give your brain cells the ammunition they need to withstand insults from either the environment around you or your genetic background.
- Control your weight. Among all the other health risks of obesity, people who are overweight develop Alzheimer’s disease more frequently than those who are not. Improving your entire metabolism with weight loss is very good for your brain cells.
- Control high blood pressure and diabetes. These health problems seriously increase one’s risk for dementia. And here we go again: eat healthy, exercise, lose weight, and take medication when indicated.
- Remain socially and mentally active. Reading, playing music, learning new things, or other mental exercise helps keep your brain healthier longer. So does nurturing close personal relationships, such as a healthy marriage or being part of a close group of friends or church group.
- Deal with anxiety and depression. People with psychological distress have a higher chance of developing dementia. Ouch! That may be because such distress makes your brain more vulnerable to other damaging factors. Managing stress well and perhaps using medication when needed will help your brain stay healthy.
- Pursue your life’s purpose. Fascinating research shows that those who believe their life has a purpose and are intent on accomplishing that purpose remain mentally alert and productive much longer, with a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. God put you here for a reason!
Dementia is not inevitable. You can’t guarantee how well your mind will function in the future, but there’s much you can do to hit dementia right in the mouth.
Your Turn: How fearful are you of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia in the future? Is there one of these steps you can incorporate into your life now to prevent the disease? Leave a comment below.
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P.S. This is adapted from just one small section of my upcoming book Dr Carol’s Guide to Women’s Health.
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