Alzheimer’s or dementia prevention is something you might scoff at. It’s easy to think of either disease as just something that happens to the aging brain. No matter what you do, you’re either going to get it or you’re not.
But, recognizing the warning signs of dementia and knowing what to do about it may save you in the long run. A brand-new study is suggesting that you may be able to begin Alzheimer’s treatment long before you’re ever diagnosed.
The study, published in the medical journal Lancet, suggests that up to one-third of dementia cases may be preventable through health and lifestyle measures, including weight management, education, physical activity, and more.
And while the 35% range might not seem that impressive, it is actually quite substantial. The study notes that preventing dementia may be in your control—to an extent—and reducing the risk is dependent on the decisions you make today. It’s very important, therefore, to think of Alzheimer’s and dementia as conditions worth working on now to prevent later. Degenerative brain diseases are not just a problem in your senior years; that’s just when they become fully blown. The foundation, in fact, can be laid as early as the teenage years.
Dementia Facts and Figures
According to 2015 estimates, roughly 45 million people worldwide have dementia, with an estimated cost around $818 billion each year. But in real terms, costs are much higher. The price of treating dementia extends far beyond medications and medical treatment or even care facilities. It can cost families, friendships, relationships, and years of memories. Not to mention the absence of meaning, direction, consistency, and control in day-to-day life.
And suffering isn’t limited to the person who’s been diagnosed. For each person living with dementia, their spouse, children, siblings, and other loved ones also suffer. Therefore, each diagnosis may have a substantial impact on a handful of people as they come to grips with caring for a loved one and the reality that that person may not even recognize them from hour to hour.
The Lancet study, therefore, has the potential to affect far more than just those with potential dementia, but all of those around them who will be impacted.
Any factor that you, as an individual, can take to modify dementia and Alzheimer’s risk has the potential to be far reaching. And although preventing dementia cannot be guaranteed, taking precautions—including identifying warning signs—can be helpful.
Identifying the Warning Signs of Dementia
As we explored earlier, there are steps you can take throughout your life to prevent or delay the onset of dementia. But if you’re a little older, there are some things you should look for to identify your risk of Alzheimer’s or dementia. And it should be noted that the lifestyle tips mentioned in the next section can be applied at any age.
Some of the early warning signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s include:
1. Memory Loss That Disrupts Daily Life
This largely pertains to forgetting very important dates, recently learned information, or repeatedly asking the same questions. Normal age-related change is sometimes forgetting an appointment but remembering it later.
2. Challenges in Planning or Solving Problems
This would be things like having difficulty following recipes, staying on top of monthly bills that have been in place for a while, or taking much longer to do things than you used to. Making an occasional error when balancing a checkbook or confusing a teaspoon with a tablespoon, however, is not something to worry about.
3. Difficulty Completing Familiar Tasks
You may experience trouble getting to a familiar location, managing your budget, or remembering the rules to a game you love. You have nothing to worry about if a distraction makes you miss a left turn, you occasionally go over budget on a purchase, or it’s been years since you played that game.
4. Misplacing Items and Losing the Ability to Retrace Steps
Finding your remote in the refrigerator or shoes in your underwear drawer may indicate Alzheimer’s, especially if it’s happening regularly. You may also find yourself constantly accusing others of stealing. If you misplace things every now and again but are capable of retracing your steps to find them, it’s likely not a major issue.
5. Decreased or Poor Judgment
People with Alzheimer’s are more likely to give big donations to charitable organizations, forget to bathe, and keep up with personal hygiene.
New data is also emerging that speech patterns may indicate dementia risk. A recent study found that people who speak in long-winded sentences have a higher risk for the disease than those who don’t.
The Lancet study shows that 35% of dementia cases may be prevented by adopting some lifestyle and health measures. Unfortunately, that still leaves some 65% of cases left to factors that are currently beyond the control of individuals. But with the amount dementia cases worldwide and the high cost of treatment, any reduction—and especially one in excess of 30%—is definitely something worth paying attention to, regardless of who you are. The nine keys identified to preventing dementia include:
1. Keep Learning
The study showed that staying in school to at least the age of 15, while continuing to learn new things, activated the brain in ways that could prevent or delay the onset of dementia. So the key here is: keep learning! Read books, take courses, and keep your brain tuned in and engaged!
2. Get Some Physical Activity
Staying active also helps keep brain pathways open and supplies it with oxygen. Activity and exercise can also reduce the risk of dementia by reducing the likelihood of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, which are all associated with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
3. Stay Connected
Social isolation is another preventable risk factor for dementia. Joining community groups, meeting up with friends, and finding other ways to connect with humans can help keep your brain active and engaged. Shut off the smartphone and TV, and interact with other humans
4. Treat Hearing Loss
Hearing loss can be another factor in dementia because it can be isolating. If you’ve noticed your sense of sound waning, get it checked out and get the appropriate treatment.
5. Manage Blood Pressure
Adopting a diet like the Mediterranean diet— high in plants, legumes, and healthy proteins—can help reduce blood pressure and cut your risk for dementia. Other ways to keep blood pressure in a normal range are to exercise regularly, limit smoking and alcohol, and get better sleep.
6. Maintain a Healthy Weight
Maintaining a healthy weight where blood pressure and insulin levels are regulated can also play a major role in dementia risk. The same strategies employed to manage blood pressure can also help you lose weight.
7. Quit Smoking
Smoking deprives the brain of oxygen while increasing the risk for heart disease and high blood pressure.
8. Treat Depression
If you struggle with depression, it’s best to have your situation assessed and treated by a professional. It appears that the longer depression or anxiety remain untreated, the higher the likelihood of dementia. This may be related to social isolation.
9. Manage Diabetes
Diabetes is another risk factor for dementia, but thankfully it’s something that can be averted, or even reversed, by adopting healthier lifestyle options. A Mediterranean diet and more activity are great ways to drastically reduce the likelihood of type 2 diabetes.
“10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s,” Alzheimer’s Association, 2017; http://www.alz.org/10-signs-symptoms-alzheimers-dementia.asp, last accessed July 26, 2017.
“Dementia Numbers in Canada,” Alzheimer’s Society Canada, January 18, 2017; http://www.alzheimer.ca/en/about-dementia/what-is-dementia/dementia-numbers, last accessed July 26, 2017.