Some 5.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia among older adults.
Dementia is not a specific disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but is a general term for the impaired ability to remember, think, or make decisions that interfere with doing everyday activities. There are many types of dementia, each with individual characteristics.
It is different than grandma forgetting where she parked, the diseases cause changes in the brain that are different than normal aging. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s, which is the fifth leading cause of death for adults aged 65 years and older, and the sixth leading cause of death for all adults, according to the most CDC recent data.
Many experts now believe that the percentage of people who will develop dementia is actually dipping slightly. However, because the population is aging, there will still be a steep rise in the number of cases, up to 14 million by the year 2050. This means many more millions of family members will be affected as they provide care for these loved ones.
At present, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, and drug treatments have been largely ineffective. So prevention remains the main focus today. Can we lower our risk of developing dementia? Experts say yes. While some people are at higher risk due to genetic factors, there are many factors we can control.
Thirty-five percent of dementia cases could be prevented if people followed certain lifestyle practices throughout their lives, according to study published in the July 20, 2017 issue of The Lancet, a highly regarded peer-reviewed medical journal
“There’s been a great deal of focus on developing medicines to prevent dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease,” said study co-author Dr. Lon Schneider of the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. “But we can’t lose sight of the real major advances we’ve already made in treating dementia, including preventive approaches.”
The research, which was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2017 International Conference, named nine specific controllable risk factors:
- Education and mental stimulation—The authors say that the longer a young person stays in school, the greater their cognitive reserve, which they define as “a resilience to cognitive decline caused by the brain strengthening its networks and therefore continuing functioning in later life despite damage.” Mentally stimulating activities are recommended throughout life.
- Social connections—Social isolation has been found to be very stressful and damaging to brain health. Relationships are important at every age, perhaps more so the older we get.
- Depression—The relationship between dementia and depression is a complicated one. Depression is a common symptom of dementia, but depression also increases the risk, because it is toxic to the brain.
- Hearing loss—Hearing loss is linked with both depression and social isolation. The authors also noted, “Preserving hearing in mid-life may help people to experience a cognitively rich environment and build cognitive reserve.”
- Smoking—Smoking exposes the brain to neurotoxins and reduces cardiovascular health, which is, in turn, damaging to the brain
- Hypertension—Uncontrolled high blood pressure can damage the blood vessels in the brain, and also affects cardiovascular wellness.
- Obesity—The researchers found that being overweight in earlier life may raise the risk of dementia in later life. Maintaining a healthy weight at any age protects the brain by protecting cardiovascular wellness.
- Diabetes—Properly managing blood sugar helps patients avoid certain changes in the brain that affect memory and thinking.
- Exercise—Physical activity promotes all-around health in people of every age, helping to prevent conditions that damage the brain. Indeed, physical activity can have a positive effect on each of the other factors in this list.
The authors emphasized that brain health is a lifelong process. “Although dementia is diagnosed in later life, the brain changes usually begin to develop years before, with risk factors for developing the disease occurring throughout life, not just in old age,” said lead author Prof. Gill Livingston of University College London in the UK. “We believe that a broader approach to prevention of dementia which reflects these risk factors will benefit our aging societies and help to prevent the rising number of dementia cases globally.”
And although brain health begins in childhood, it’s never too late to make brain-healthy choices. The study authors noted that even seniors who are already living with cognitive impairment can benefit from positive lifestyle interventions, such as improved social contact, exercise and appropriate activities. Dr. Schneider reported that these interventions can replace the use of antipsychotic drugs, which have harmful side effects.
Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge, reporting on study from The Lancet and Keck Medicine of USC. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2017. The article was updated in 2020 to reflect 2018 CDC numbers.