Eavesdrop on any conversation between a group of middle-aged people and it’s likely that the subject of memory will come up. Usually in the form of forgetting the name of someone you’ve known for years or the phenomenon of walking into a room and not remembering what you went there for.. the fear of dementia lurks just under the surface.
For many of us, we’ve seen what that means. Aging parents, aunts or uncles with Alzheimer’s. Sometimes even people our own age. Many of us feel hopeless and helpless as our bodies and brains pile on the years. But that doesn’t have to be the case.
Over 4 million people currently have Alzheimer’s disease and by the year 2050, experts estimate there will be over 14 million Americans with the disease.
True, there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s and many other forms of dementia, and yes, the numbers of future cases are staggering, but there are things we can do that affect how our brain ages and there is some hope on the horizon. And, as the saying goes “Knowledge is Power”.
I recently attended a continuing education seminar entitled “Remembering, Forgetting and Protecting the Aging Brain” the presenter was a Neurobiologist from the Boston University school of Medicine. At the beginning of the lecture he asked the audience by show of hands who was there for CE credits, who was a nurse, a mental health worker, a social worker, etc. Then he asked “who here doesn’t need CE credits? A fair number of attendees, including me, raised their hands. “Then why are you here?” he joked.
He then asked “who here is worried about their memory?” The entire room raised their hand.
I’d like to share some things I learned during that seminar. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a health care professional but I’ve always been interested in health and I also happen to have a parent with Alzheimer’s. My hope is that by sharing this information with others, we can all be more empowered with respect to our health as we age.
Here are some basic facts and figures on memory and the aging brain:
- The five domains of cognitive function are; attention, language, visuospatial function, executive function and language. Often, when we worry about forgetting names, it is a function of language, not memory. We remember the person, we just can’t find the name when we want to. Ever notice that once we give up, the name pops into our head? Our brains keep trying, even when we stop.
- Executive function is the most sensitive of the five domains and the first to show up as a problem in a neurologicdisease. It’s also the least specific to identify.
- Testing for dementia involves several specialists, it cannot be diagnosed quickly based on a few symptoms.
- There are several types of memory: short term, declarative, procedural and emotional. Different types of memory loss are caused by damage in different parts of the brain.
- Memory impairment can occur in the abscence of other cognitive deficits and with normal IQ.
Conditions that produce memory disorders (it’s interesting to note that some of these causes can be eliminated, and memory improves):
- Stroke and seizures
- Psychiatric disorders (depression, bipolar)
- Substance abuse (alcohol, marijuana, other drugs)
- Aging and age related disease
- Developmental Disorders
Prevention and effects of brain injury, concussion, sub clinical injuries:
- Our brains weren’t designed to withstand repeated pounding.
- Football, soccer and other sports that cause frequent head injuries, even if they are not concussions, cause deposits of TAU proteins in the brain which lead to depression and dementia years later. Watch the movie “Concussion” and you’ll be suitably alarmed.
Roles of exercise, diet, sleep, dental hygiene (or some really good reasons to get 8 hours of sleep a night!):
- Americans get 6.5 hours of sleep on average. Most people require 8 for proper functioning.
- Sleep deficits lead to depression and anxiety. Chronic insomnia can increase the risk for depression by 5 times.
- Chronic sleep deficit results in reduced memory consolidation.
- Poor sleep may be linked to Alzheimer’s because it is believed that sleep clears toxic molecules from the brain. Sound sleep also seems to blunt the effect of a gene (APOE-E4) that predisposes the development of Alzheimer’s.
- Infections in the gums can cause infections in the nerves that lead to the brain. Good dental hygiene is extremely important!
- Diets rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods can help delay aging and may slow down brain aging. These include: blueberries, dark chocolate, ginger, curcurmin(turmeric), green tea and coffee! Check out this related blog for information on medicinal foods.
- Exercise has amazing anti-aging benefits that include slowing brain aging.
A huge factor in aging and health in general is stress. Stress affects our bodies in many ways and not all stress is bad, but too much stress causes many adverse reactions in the body:
- It increases the release of cortisol which leads to a reduction in size of the hippocampus – an area of the brain important in memory.
- Increases heart and breathing rate – “fight or flight” effect.
- Leads to accumulation of visceral fat.
- Blunts pain and suppresses the immune system.
Other conditions that can exacerbate cognitive impairment include:
- Elevated blood pressure
- Elevated serum cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes
- Head injury
- Chronic pain
The bottom line, we cannot cure or prevent dementia but we can adopt a healthier lifestyle that may very well delay or prevent progression.
Research has shown that in addition to healthy diet, sleep and exercise habits, factors that influence healthy brain aging also include socialization, continuous learning and mindfulness, or living in the present.
Also, may I suggest Yoga? Studies have shown many benefits from practicing Yoga and other mind body activities.
I encourage anyone interested in learning more about aging, dementia and ways to live a longer, healthier life, to research these topics and make healthy lifestyle changes wherever possible.
Please let me know if this information has been helpful and any I’d love to get your suggestions for future blog topics related to life in the middle years.