Dementia: Not Just Part of Aging

Dementia is defined as loss of cognitive functioning (thinking, remembering, and reasoning) which is severe enough that it interferes with a person’s activities of daily living. Some people with dementia cannot control their emotions, and their personalities may change.

Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias are not an inevitable part of aging. These conditions represent a pathology in the brain.  When it comes to developing dementia, there are certain factors outside of our control; Twice as many women have Alzheimer’s disease (the most common type of dementia) compared to men. African Americans are about twice as likely to have dementia as whites. Hispanics are about one and one- half times as likely to have dementia as whites. Social factors are very correlated with dementia risk; household income (more opportunities for healthy lifestyle) is considered a protective factor for dementia.

If a member of your family has single-gene dementia, it is quite likely that a person from that family will also develop dementia. If one parent carries the gene, each child has a 50% chance of developing dementia.

The good news about dementia is, according to the CDC, as many as 40% of the cases can be delayed or prevented through lifestyle choices. The following is a list of risk factors that we can exert control over:

Decrease blood pressure: people who have consistently high blood pressure (hypertension) in mid-life (ages 45 to 65) are more likely to develop dementia compared to those with normal blood pressure.

Quit smoking: The evidence is strong and consistent that smokers are at a higher risk of developing dementia vs. non-smokers or ex-smokers. The studies are related to cigarette smoke, but studies also indicate increased risk for habitual marijuana smokers as well.

Prevent and/or effectively manage diabetes: People with type 2 diabetes in mid-life (ages 45 to 65) are at an increased risk of developing dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Yes, you can prevent or delay type 2 diabetes through lifestyle changes (managing your BMI and increasing physical activity).

Lose weight if needed: Obesity in mid-life (ages 45 to 65) increases the risk of developing dementia. Obesity also increases the risk of developing other risk factors such as type 2 diabetes.

Increase your regular physical activity level, especially activities that give you cardiovascular benefits.

Improve your diet to be more plant based with lower saturated fats, and sugars.  An unhealthy diet, high in saturated fat, sugar, and salt, can increase the risk of developing many illnesses, including dementia and cardiovascular disease.

The Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, or MIND diet, targets the health of the aging brain mostly through ensuring optimal cardiovascular functioning. The diets highlight plant-based foods and limit the intake of animal products and high saturated fat foods. Specific foods emphasized on the MIND diet include whole grains, berries, green, leafy vegetables, other vegetables, olive oil, small quantities of poultry, and fish. Foods high in fiber are demonstrated to help with dementia prevention.

Decreasing your consumption of alcohol.

Engage your brain: The concept of “cognitive reserve “is that people who actively use their brains throughout their lives may be more protected against the cellular damage caused by dementia. Think reading, puzzles, Suduko, mediation.

Engage in social activities: Social isolation can increase the risk of hypertension, coronary heart disease, depression, and dementia. Having social outlets and a social support system is good for your general health as well.

Interestingly, there are less cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s found among developing countries compared with developed countries. Rural India, the Okinawa islands of Japan, the Nicoya area of Costa Rica, the Liguria district of northwest Italy are areas with a notable absence of dementia, despite higher-than-average life expectancies. Deeper research into these regions indicates that diet (primarily plant based) is a main driver in the healthy aging of their citizens, but social cohesiveness in those communities was also noted.

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