CAN I PREVENT DEMENTIA AS I GET OLDER?
Article Updated on 07 July 2022
Dementia is not a specific disease, but rather a general term to describe the loss of cognitive functioning, like the ability to remember, think, and reason, as you get older.
The condition dementia is often incorrectly referred to as “senile dementia” or “senility”. This reflects a widespread and incorrect belief that serious mental decline is part of normal aging.
It is natural to experience some amount of deterioration in cognitive function due to the consequences of biological aging. However, in dementia, the decline is beyond what might be normally expected.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), globally around 55 million people suffer from dementia. With the increasing proportion of the older population, this figure is expected to reach 78 million in 2030 and a staggering 139 million in 2050.
This article here will talk about dementia prevention, what the symptoms look like, and the risk factors behind it. We will also answer some of your most frequently asked questions.
Let’s begin by getting to the root of the problem: why do people suffer from dementia?
Dementia results when the once healthy brain cells or neurons in the brain stop functioning. Owing to the senile degeneration of the brain, these neurons may also lose connection with the other cells of the brain and die off. While age-related neuronal loss is experienced by everyone, the degree is far greater in people with dementia.
Brain damage in dementia can be caused by:
This is by far the most common cause of dementia and accounts for 60-80% of the cases. Alzheimer’s is a brain disorder that destroys memory and thinking skills slowly which eventually leads to the inability to carry out simple daily tasks.
In Alzheimer’s disease, there is an abnormal buildup of proteins. These protein clumps (called amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (known as neurofibrillary or tau tangles) deposit many years before the symptoms appear. It is not currently known why and what causes this process to begin.
As the neurons get affected, the chemical messengers involved in sending messages across the brain begin to decrease. Over time, the areas of the brain shrink, and the ones responsible for memories usually get affected first.
For most people symptoms first appear in their mid-60s, which is referred to as the late-onset type of symptoms. Very rarely, the disease manifests between the early 30s and mid-60s, in what is known as early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Damage to the vessels that supply blood to the brain results in vascular dementia.
This is the second most common cause of dementia and can be caused by many conditions that interrupt or limit the blood flow to the brain. It could be microscopic bleeding in the brain or a blockage of the blood vessels.
To function properly and remain healthy, the brain cells need a constant supply of blood and nutrients. When there is a block or reduction in the blood flow to the various parts of the brain, the blood cannot reach the brain cells and will eventually die.
The cells of the brain are very vulnerable to an inadequate supply of blood. When the cells die, it can cause problems with memory, reasoning, and thinking. When these cognitive issues start impairing daily functioning, then it is called vascular dementia.
Frontotemporal dementia (FTD), also known as Pick’s disease, is a group of disorders that causes dementia due to the loss of brain cells from the front and side lobes (frontal and temporal) of the brain.
Unlike other causes of dementia, these can affect younger people. While the exact cause of FTD is unknown, it has been associated with abnormal mutations and protein deposition in the brain.
Lewy body dementia (LBD) is caused by the abnormal deposition of clumps of proteins in the brain. These proteins are thought to interfere with the signals between the neurons affecting the normal functioning of the brain.
In LBD, protein builds up in the areas of the brain responsible for functions like vision, thinking, and muscle movement. This leads to seeing things that are not present, and unpredictable changes in attention, alertness, and concentration. Eventually loss of memory sets in.
Mixed dementia is a condition in which a person has more than one type of dementia. The most common is a combination of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.
Many factors can contribute to dementia eventually. Some risk factors can be changed while there is nothing you can do about the others. Let’s take a look at each of them.
The genes you inherit from your parents can contribute to your risk of developing dementia. For instance, if several members of your family have developed dementia over generations, it is more likely that the condition is passed on to you as well.
People with down’s syndrome are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The genetic changes in down’s syndrome can lead to abnormal protein buildup causing Alzheimer’s and dementia in some people.
The risk of dementia increases as you age, but it is not an inevitable part of aging. Although extremely rare, dementia can sometimes affect people as young as 30 years.
Excessive and long-term consumption of alcohol and dementia have been interlinked. According to research, heavy drinking can increase the risk of dementia by three folds.
Drinking alcohol causes brain damage, and those who drink heavily and over prolonged periods have a reduced volume of white matter. This is the region responsible for transmitting signals across the brain and can lead to an issue with normal functioning.
The brain damage from alcohol may be reversed when alcohol stays out of your body for long periods.
Stress affects our immune system which is known to play a key role in the development of dementia. The stress hormone, cortisol, has been linked with memory problems. Studies have even found that chronic stress may even trigger the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Cigarette smoking increases the risk of Alzheimer’s, vascular problems like stroke, and other causes of dementia. It is estimated that smokers have a 30-50% increased risk of developing dementia.
Hearing and Vision loss
Vision impairment is the latest condition to join the list of modifiable risk factors.
A 2022 study from the United States has identified impaired vision as a risk factor for accelerated cognitive decline and dementia. Researchers have estimated that 62% of the current risk factors for dementia could have been prevented, of which 1.8% (a staggering 100,000 cases) could have been prevented through healthy vision.
Hearing loss could also potentially contribute to cognitive decline.
So how can both these conditions contribute to dementia?
The function of the neural system in our body is maintained by stimulation from the sensory organs like the eyes and the ears.
In the absence of such stimulation, the neurons will die out and there will be a rearrangement of the brain.
It can also limit the participation of older adults in social and physical activities, which further worsens the symptoms.
Some studies have linked the risk of developing Alzheimer’s in people who have had a history of head injury. More research is however needed.
People with symptoms of depression tend to suffer a rapid decline in memory and thinking skills. Researchers have found that depression can increase the risk of dementia by 70%.
The exact relationship between diabetes and dementia has not been well understood, but it is believed that high blood sugar can harm the brain. Diabetes damages the blood vessels and increases the risk of stroke and heart disease, both of which may contribute to dementia.
Some people with dementia cannot control their emotions while others may experience a change in their personalities. Sometimes dementia is so severe that it interferes with a person’s ability to carry out daily activities.
Because the condition ranges from mild to severe, people may have varying symptoms.
One of the first signs of dementia is forgetfulness. Other early signs of dementia are becoming lost in familiar places and losing track of time. Because the onset of symptoms is gradual during the early stage, it may often be overlooked.
When dementia progresses, so do the symptoms.
Forgetting people’s names or recent events, needing help with personal care, becoming confused even while at home, difficulty in communicating, and behavior changes like repeated questioning and wandering are some symptoms of dementia in the middle stages.
In the late stage of dementia, memory disturbances are serious. There is near total dependency and physical symptoms become more obvious.
People with late-stage dementia are unaware of the time and place and experience difficulty in walking or carrying out daily activities. They have a hard time recognizing their spouse, children, friends, and other family members.
Sometimes behavior changes may escalate and lead to aggression.
Researchers are still investigating how dementia develops, so there are no certain ways it can be prevented completely.
However, experts do believe what’s good for the heart is also good for the brain. So, here’s some insight on how to prevent dementia, to the best that we can:
Exercising will help reduce stress, make your heart healthy, control your weight, and keep your learning, thinking, and judgment skills sharp as you age.
Scientists have explored the direct link between exercise and dementia, with some studies suggesting that regular exercise may reduce the risk of developing dementia by 30%.
Get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity (such as aerobics, fast walking, or cycling)
While there is no dementia prevention diet as such, eating a healthy and balanced diet may help. Avoid foods that are high in salt, sugar, and saturated fats, and low in fiber.
Include at least 5 portions of vegetables and fruits every day. It may also be helpful if you cut back, if not quit, smoking and consuming alcohol.
Meditation calms your mind and improves physical health. It also helps enhance your mental ability. Practicing meditation daily for at least 15 to 30 minutes may help lower your risk of dementia.
Health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and hearing loss are known to increase the risk of dementia. Consult with your GP regularly to stay on top of your treatment and undergo routine vision and hearing care.
Stay mentally alert by picking up new hobbies, solving crossword puzzles, playing chess, or simply reading a book. You may also put together a jigsaw puzzle, build your vocabulary or listen to music.
Involve yourself in social activities. Attend ccommunity programs, and support groups. Listen to and communicate with other people.
Studies have determined that a traumatic event or those associated with repeated and persistent stress could enhance the risk of dementia.
Some diseases have features similar to dementia but are instead caused by vitamin deficiencies or a reaction to certain medications. These respond well to treatments. Even dementia induced by alcohol may be reversed. However, dementia caused by progressive diseases such as Alzheimer's is irreversible.
Dementia, by itself, will not cause death. Progressive brain damage as a result of dementia may eventually be fatal. For instance, people with Alzheimer’s disease may live, on average, 4 to 8 years after diagnosis. Depending upon other factors, some people may live up to 20 years.
While the biggest risk factor for dementia is getting old, there are certain things that you can do to prevent the condition. Doing regular physical activity is one of the best ways and so is following a healthy diet that is good for your mind and heart. Staying away from alcohol and cigarettes can help too!
Take control of your health from the start and manage health problems that may lead to dementia. Engage in mental and social activities that may help build the brain’s ability to cope with such conditions.
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- Emmady, Prabhu D. and Prasanna Tadi. “Dementia.” StatPearls, StatPearls Publishing, 8 May 2022.
- Durazzo, Timothy C et al. “Regional brain volume changes in alcohol-dependent individuals during early abstinence: associations with relapse following treatment.” Addiction biology vol. 22,5 (2017): 1416-1425. doi:10.1111/adb.12420
- Peavy, Guerry M et al. “The influence of chronic stress on dementia-related diagnostic change in older adults.” Alzheimer disease and associated disorders vol. 26,3 (2012): 260-6. doi:10.1097/WAD.0b013e3182389a9c
- Ávila-Villanueva, Marina et al. “The Role of Chronic Stress as a Trigger for the Alzheimer Disease Continuum.” Frontiers in aging neuroscience vol. 12 561504. 22 Oct. 2020, doi:10.3389/fnagi.2020.561504
- Byers, Amy L, and Kristine Yaffe. “Depression and risk of developing dementia.” Nature reviews. Neurology vol. 7,6 323-31. 3 May. 2011, doi:10.1038/nrneurol.2011.60
- Charles, E et al. “Relation entre événements de vie, traumatismes et démence; étude ouverte portant sur 565 patients déments” [Links between life events, traumatism and dementia; an open study including 565 patients with dementia]. L'Encephale vol. 32,5 Pt 1 (2006): 746-52. doi:10.1016/s0013-7006(06)76227-3
- Ahlskog, J Eric et al. “Physical exercise as a preventive or disease-modifying treatment of dementia and brain aging.” Mayo Clinic proceedings vol. 86,9 (2011): 876-84. doi:10.4065/mcp.2011.0252
- Ehrlich JR, Goldstein J, Swenor BK, Whitson H, Langa KM, Veliz P. Addition of Vision Impairment to a Life-Course Model of Potentially Modifiable Dementia Risk Factors in the US. JAMA Neurol. 2022;79(6):623–626. doi:10.1001/jamaneurol.2022.0723
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