Since my great-uncle developed Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago, the possibility of it affecting me or another member of my family has lingered in the back of my mind. Like most people, I worry about problems I can’t really control all the time. Everyone does at one point or another, don’t they? But this one got me thinking, is preventing Alzheimer’s and dementia really out of my control? I know the current treatments are limited, and the drug trials so far haven’t been very successful.
Still, I knew there must be ways to decrease my risk that can work. They might not, of course, but Alzheimer’s is such a devastating disease that I don’t think I can ever truly stop worrying about it happening to me. If you’re in the same boat, here’s what you need to know.
The difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
Dementia is a syndrome, whereas Alzheimer's is a disease. Basically, dementia is a broad term used to explain symptoms such as memory loss, the struggle to perform daily activities and trouble communicating. Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia and is responsible for 50–70 percent of cases. Often, the two can overlap, and the symptoms of dementia can progress rapidly.
Are rates of dementia rising or falling?
One study coming out of the Netherlands collected data from 800,000 people 60 and older over a 23-year period. During this time, 23,186 dementia cases were diagnosed, and they estimated the annual growth to be about 2.1 percent. However, two studies in 2013 said they found some indication that rates of dementia were actually declining.
Researchers didn't exactly reach a firm conclusion, as the data they studied came from Denmark and the U.K. Other countries have performed similar studies, but since their own health care practices are different from ours, who's to say if dementia is on the decline in the U.S.?
Here’s the basic problem with this information: Every country has its own set of rules and standards when it comes to providing health care services. That means they define dementia differently. They take different steps to diagnose dementia and prescribe different treatments based on their own standards and practices.
If we’re trying to figure out if rates of dementia are rising or declining, we have to say that right now we really don’t know. Regardless, the rate of decline is much slower than you or I should be comfortable with. That means if we want to combat the likelihood of developing dementia, we’ll have to make lifestyle changes.
Prioritizing your sleep
Perhaps the No. 1 way to stave off dementia is to prioritize your sleep. The more restfully you sleep at night, the slower your memory loss in old age will develop. Part of the reason for this is that as we get older, the amount of time we spend in "deep sleep" decreases significantly. Scientists tell us that this is the most critical portion of our sleep because it allows our minds to consolidate our memories.
This particular study was a small one (only 13 participants), but the findings are still worth mentioning. I've talked before about the effect certain sounds can have on our brains, and this study looked directly at that in relation to memory. It had participants take a memory test before sleep and again the next morning. Those who slept without sound had a memory increase of a few percent, but the group who spent the night listening to a sound simulation had an average improvement three times larger than the no-sound group.
What else can you do?
A study this week out of Indiana University identified 24 compounds that could potentially boost an enzyme in the brain shown to protect against dementia. One of those compounds was caffeine, and while you should avoid increasing your sugar intake from soda, drinking black coffee can be part of your healthy lifestyle.
I've talked before about the importance of proper blood flow to our brains. Without it, we are unable to think and reason at our maximum capacity. Over time, this lack of blood flow does cut down on the activity in our brains. This can cause atrophy and result in our brains shrinking, thus increasing the progression of dementia.
Finally, the lack of social interaction and activity is part of the reason why lonely people are 64 percent more likely to develop dementia. Also, adults who consistently do 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day are 30 percent less likely to develop dementia and 45 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. Some common over-the-counter drugs can increase your risk of dementia if they are taken too frequently.
Finally, researchers have recently found potential links between Type 2 diabetes and developing dementia later in the life. Considering that millions of Americans have prediabetes or Type 2 diabetes already, this makes the need for prevention even more important. If you’re overweight, one of the best ways to reduce your risk is to lose 10 pounds. Otherwise, the best dieting advice is to eat a balanced diet filled with healthy fats, complex carbohydrates and plenty of protein. This will keep your body running efficiently, and the more that happens, the more likely it will continue happening as you get older.
Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He's on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at email@example.com with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.