Adults who want to protect their brainpower may want to redirect their focus toward keeping other organs healthy.
It may not seem like a priority to change habits now in order to protect yourself from dementia later. After all, dementia -- which includes Alzheimer's disease -- typically occurs in people ages 65 and up. You may still be many years from being in the age group facing a higher dementia risk. But this threat might be closer than you think: number of Americans aged 65 and up is projected to grow from 40.2 million in 2010 to 54.6 million in 2020.
What's more, signs of dementia can start to creep in much earlier than the sixth or seventh decade, and full-blown dementia can have a devastating financial impact on you at a time in your life when you can ill-afford the expense. It can leave your family in a financially precarious situation and dramatically reduce or eliminate the money you might want to leave your loved ones after a lifetime of hard work and good financial planning.
More than 400,000 people were diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2000. That number is expected to rise to more than 615,000 by 2030. By 2050, that annual number is expected to be just under 1 million, with someone developing Alzheimer's every 33 seconds.
Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia, but another common type is vascular dementia. This type is typically caused over time by narrowing or blockage of vessels that interrupts healthy blood flow to the brain.
In one recent study, European researchers took a closer look at how cardiovascular health may influence mental wellness. They found that having a 10 percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease was related to declining scores on cognitive tests. The greater their cardiovascular risk, the more likely that participants saw their cognitive ability falter during the next decade.
There is hope in this data: You can take some of the power back. How? Try these evidence-based tips:
In addition to this recent evidence supporting reduction of cardiovascular risk, many studies have found that older people with type 2 diabetes (a major cardiovascular risk factor) have about twice the risk of dementia or mild cognitive impairment compared to people without diabetes. Additional potentially chronic factors associated with heightened dementia risk -- which you do have some control over -- include obesity in middle age, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
Although the protective mechanism is not definitively known (it could be the antioxidants targeting free radicals or the general anti-inflammatory effect of the diet), the Mediterranean diet is accumulating evidence supporting its use in dementia prevention. This diet is largely composed of fruits and vegetables; whole-grain bread and other whole-grain foods; and beans, seeds and nuts. Lean protein comes most often in the form of seafood several times a week, but not much red meat. Much of the dietary fat comes from olive oil, which is rich in desirable monounsaturated fat, and salt is used sparingly. This eating style also incorporates a small amount of alcohol (preferably red wine), if you drink.
Research supports the premise that people who are physically active can lower their risk of Alzheimer's. Regular exercise helps keep all of your blood vessels healthy, which in turn can help protect you from vascular dementia and may also play a role in a reduced risk of Alzheimer's. And one study found that even four months of exercise can improve cognitive ability in previously sedentary people.
Not only is smoking linked to a higher risk of dementia in older smokers, even just the exposure to other people's smoke may possibly increase your risk. A 2009 study of nonsmokers ages 50 and up determined that those with the highest levels of a chemical called cotinine (a marker of smoke exposure) were 44 percent more likely to have cognitive impairment.
Some studies have shown that people who participate in "thinking activities" (reading, crossword puzzles, etc) are less likely to develop dementia. These activities may work by increasing your cognitive reserve, which can be likened to a bank in your mind: You can deposit more resources to have on hand when age -- or disease --related changes in your brain start making withdrawals. On a similar note, people who don't have an active social life also may be at greater risk of developing dementia. A cautionary note: Toxic relationships or environments may be harmful to your brain health. One recent study found that people living in hazardous neighborhoods had a higher rate of cognitive decline than those who did not live in close proximity to negative influences.
Researchers investigating the depression-dementia link aren't sure if depression leads to the dementia, or if it may simply be an early symptom of dementia, but the two are intricately linked. However, depression may lead to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can cause changes in the brain that increase the risk of dementia. People with depression may also have more beta-amyloid plaques in the brain, which are pathological deposits that are associated with Alzheimer's For more on how to get better health within our current healthcare system, check out "The New Prescription: How to Get the Best Health Care in a Broken System" (HCI Books, May 2011), available now for pre-order at Amazon.
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