According to the World Health Organization, as reported in the March 22, 2015 issue of the Toronto Star, it is estimated that 1.4 million Canadians will be living with dementia in 20 years. Worldwide, there are about 7.7 million new dementia cases every year – about one case every four seconds. One in nine Americans age 65 and over have Alzheimer’s disease according to a 2015 special edition of Scientific American, and ultimately Alzheimer’s disease kills about 40% of those aged 85 and over.
These are shocking statistics that are already painful realities for some of us. The author of The Brain Training Revolution claims that two thirds of Americans older than 50 complain of memory problems and that aging Americans fear memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease more than they fear cancer, heart disease and even death.
Although medication can slow down the progression of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, it is better to avoid or delay its onset through relatively simple strategies such as exercise. By caring for your body and brain – from the food you consume and the sleep that you get to the way you respond to stress, you can influence the vitality of your brain, and greatly reduce the chances of ever being affected by the disease.
Here are a few suggestions.
Stimulate the brain. Good old-fashioned reading, writing and arithmetic stimulate the brain and make it grow in every conceivable way. Don’t outsource all your mental chores to computers. Use it or lose it. Keep mentally active, whether it is by doing crossword puzzles, discussing the weather, writing poetry or working on your income tax.
Keep on learning. Our chance of developing Alzheimer’s drops 17% for every year of education beyond high school, according to John Ratey, co-author of the book, Go wild: free yourself from the afflictions of civilization. It’s not the education, it’s the forced thinking – so commit yourself to lifelong learning. According to a Mayo Clinic researcher lifelong learning could delay the onset of cognitive impairment by 3 to 8 years.
Build and maintain relationships. Staying socially engaged affects your cognitive functioning as well. Research by Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University indicates that the more social connections you have, the greater your ability to fight infection. Associate with younger people. According to the November/December, 2012 issue of Scientific American Mind, research now suggests that caring for the young produces higher levels of antioxidants – proteins that protects against neurodegenerative diseases. So if you’re up to it, you might babysit.
Reduce stress. Do everything you can to reduce excessive stress in your life since stress serves to exacerbate dementia. Stress can induce the release of cortisol and excess cortisol impairs function in the prefrontal cortex. The overproduction of cortisol was found in seniors who were experiencing memory loss. Relieve stress through such things as socializing, volunteering, walking, meditation, listening to music and laughter.
Exercise regularly. Exercise not only increases circulation of nutrient carrying blood to the brain, it also reduces the risk of dying from heart disease, stroke, diabetes – and improves mood, muscles, bones and lung capacity. Dr. Laura D Baker and her colleagues at University of Washington School of Medicine completed a study indicating that six months of aerobic exercise improved cognitive functioning. John Ratey expressed it simply in his book when he said “sedentary behaviour causes brain impairment.”
Get enough sleep. You may sleep less as you get older but your need for sleep does not decrease. Research indicates that sleep deprivation causes weight gain and obesity. A CBS documentary aired on March 18, 2008 reported that four nights without sufficient deep sleep affects more than just performance, judgment and memory, it also presents a risk factor for diabetes in addition to affecting learning and cognitive skills. Try to get from 7 to 8 hours sleep a night.
Move around. Although 150 minutes of brisk walking each week may be the minimum exercise recommended, researchers are now finding that even getting up from your chair is a lot better than sitting down most of the day. One study indicated that sitters had a 50% greater likelihood of dying from any cause during the eight and a half year study. Stand up at regular intervals while watching TV, reading or working on your computer. Walk up the stairs. Park farther from the stores. Simply move around more.
Watch what you eat. A cup or two of coffee a day it has been shown to improve memory; but everything in moderation. This particularly applies to sweets. Having too much sugar in your diet reduces production of a brain chemical that helps us learn, store memories and process insulin. Consuming too much sugar also dulls the brain’s mechanism for telling you to stop eating. Both chronically high blood sugar and diabetes increase the risk for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. A separate blog discusses brain boosting foods.
According to the January, 2015 issue of Reader’s Digest, longevity is about 30% DNA and 70% other factors such as lifestyle choices. By caring for both your body and your brain, you increase the likelihood that both will survive to a ripe old age.