March 15th, 2013 - Most everyone is concerned about the predicted epidemic of Alzheimer’s disease. Epidemiologists expect the 5.4 million Americans over 65 presently diagnosed with memory loss will grow to 13.5 million by 2050. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in our country.
Currently, there is controversy concerning the efficacy of screening for early symptoms because it has been thought that early intervention or prevention would be ineffective. The position of the U. S. Prevention Task Force has been to assess cognitive function “whenever cognitive impairment or deterioration is suspected.” Guidelines are changing as ongoing studies show that cognitive screening may detect dementia earlier, which may lead to improved care of both dementia and other chronic conditions, according to a New England Journal of Medicine
Dementia is strikingly under-diagnosed, with more than half of the patients having no formal mention on their medical records. Whether this is due to the stigma associated with the illness or insufficient education about recognizing the illness—or both—is unclear.
Earlier diagnosis enables patients and families to prepare: to cope, take trips, participate in reunions and record their thoughts and wishes for future generations.
Alzheimer’s authority and psychologist Michelle Barclay states, “Alzheimer’s is a terminal illness, and it’s a difficult one. But you can certainly minimize some of the more chaotic, tragic things that can happen, if you understand the disease and know what to do.”
So what are generally accepted ways of preventing memory loss and cognitive decline?
- Exercise regularly—boosting circulation helps all of your vital organs including your brain, which has the capacity to grow new cells. Walking is recommended and is an easy way to fight memory loss. Walking six to nine miles every week can prevent brain shrinkage and memory loss, according to the American Academy of Neurology. The endorphins released during exercise also alleviate anxiety and depression.
- Stay connected—social contact works. Having regular interaction with family and friends keeps brain cells alive and working. “Use it or lose it,” comes to mind as interaction builds a support network, wards off depression, and helps maintain function.
- Eat sensibly—we are what we eat, so including more fruits and vegetables helps both the body and mind. Limiting alcohol consumption to one drink per day for women and two for men is also helpful in decreasing the chances for brain deterioration. A drink is defined as a 1.5 ounce shot, a 12 ounce beer or a 5 ounce glass of wine.
- Manage stress—the stress hormone, cortisone, in excess can lead to memory problems. Excess stress causes learning problems and difficulties in concentration.
- Sleep well—sleep is necessary for memory formation. Sleep also restores areas in the brain responsible for organizing new memories and recalling old thoughts. As we age, we do need less sleep, but getting enough rest routinely is important for the mind, our spirits and our bodies.
- Avoid smoking—I can’t say enough bad things about smoking. As a country we are down to 19+%, with physicians down to 4% and nurses at 15%. At NCH our whole team of 4,000 colleagues and those who are covered by our insurance are down to less than 11%. The vascular illness, oxygen debt, and the build up of carbon monoxide all contribute to brain damage.
Part of the Alzheimer’s epidemic is a result of our aging population—which is good. Collier County women have the longest life span of anywhere in our county. Collier County men are second longest to Norfolk, Virginia by a few tenths of a year.
Living well is as important as living longer. Follow the sensible suggestions above, avoid the fads, and in general you will have a longer productive life.