People used to fear a diagnosis of cancer above all. That has been replaced by fear of a diagnosis of dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease. Most people know someone who has it or did in the past. There is good reason to be afraid. It’s a difficult, expensive and sometimes very long journey with this disease. Furthermore, it can create a hellish existence for those taking care of their demented loved ones. Their behavior can be difficult, unpredictable and extremely unmanageable for some.
Researchers all over the world study every aspect of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and related dementias. We have no cure at this time. We don’t even have any medications to count on that we know will stop or slow the disease. The drugs currently marketed are experimental, part of studies, and we have no data as to how long any measurable benefit they seem to have actually lasts. It’s not encouraging to think of cures. It makes a lot more sense to focus on prevention.
We do have consistent research data on preventive strategies. We also know that there is a genetic predisposition to developing Alzheimer’s and we can’t do anything about that. But relatively few have that genetic marker compared to the total number of our population with dementia now. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than six million people of all ages have AD. About 12.5 million are expected to have AD by 2050. If you don’t want to be among those affected, consider what you can do now that will likely protect you.
Large, long-term studies have given us useful information about what will probably prevent us from developing this disease. Yet, most Americans don’t follow the advice offered by these many credible, scientific studies. Isn’t it the same with preventing heart attacks? We know what to do but don’t do it. Maybe it feels like too much work. From personal experience in my prior nursing career, I can say that “too much work” is what anyone caring for a loved one with dementia will say it’s like for them. Don’t make it someone else’s problem!
My favorite set of tips for dementia prevention is also from the Alzheimer’s Association, Ten Ways to Love Your Brain. This is worth checking out. Even if you did only a few of the 10 things, there is value in the potential benefit you’re likely to get. Here they are in a nutshell:
1. Break a sweat. That means exercise of course. Walking is fine.
2. Hit the books. Learn something new, take a class, watch something educational, and expand your mind.
3. Butt out. Yes, one more place telling you to quit smoking.
4. Follow your heart. That means doing the same things that prevent heart disease. (lose weight, move more, eat healthy food, manage stress, etc.)
5. Heads up. Take basic safety precautions to prevent head injury, like wearing a helmet on a bike and using a seatbelt in any car.
6. Fuel up right. This is about giving up the “typical American diet” which is high in sugar, saturated fat, and processed food and low in fruits and veggies.
7. Catch some zzz’s. Reliable research suggests that getting enough sleep, meaning 7-8 hours a night, helps our brains recover and stay healthy.
8. Take care of mental health. Long term depression, anxiety and stress are all potential risk factors for dementia. We DO know how to treat these issues. Get the help you need.
9. Buddy up. Stay socially engaged with family, friends or community. Isolation is linked to poor health outcomes, including dementia.
10. Stump yourself. Do something challenging, hard and demanding of yourself. Building something, artwork, puzzles and such can be protective of your brain health.
When we think about preventing dementia, we are definitely not helpless. These ways to “love your brain” don’t give you instant gratification. Yes, they take effort. They involve long-term choices about how to live your life as the years pass. What do you want your life to look like when you are “old”? Here’s my hope for you: you’ll be a healthy, active senior who got that way on purpose.