Understanding Dementia

An estimated 5 million Americans suffer some degree of dementia, and that number will grow as our population ages. Dementia affects approximately 1% of people in the 60-64 age group, and the percentage jumps to 30-50% of people older than 85 years. It is the leading reason families begin researching nursing homes or other skilled care options.

Alzheimer’s Disease

While dementia is an overall category that includes a number of brain diseases, Alzheimer’s Disease is a specific disease within that category. In fact, Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 50–70% of all dementia cases (according to the Alzheimer’s Association). Though Alzheimer’s Disease is increasingly common, it is not considered a normal part of aging. It is a progressive disease that worsens over time, unlike other forms of dementia that are medically treatable and can be reversed.

Preventive measures

There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, but research indicates that onset of the disease might be delayed through a variety of simple choices, including:

  • Drinking enough water. Since the brain is about 75% water, providing it with fresh supplies can help keep it alert while ridding the body of waste. “Eight glasses a day” has become a popular mantra, though many people don’t realize that those eight glasses can include the water that is already a natural part of much of the food we eat.
  • Getting enough sleep. Sleep is the time when your physical body makes repairs — to the skin and muscles, but also to brain cells. Without enough sleep, those repairs don’t get done. Make it a priority to get an average of eight hours of sleep each day to help your brain cement the memories it’s making. To some degree, naps can help you get the sleep your brain needs, but sleeping for longer stretches helps your physical self address deeper needs.
  • Exercising your body. One study of middle-aged and elderly adults had surprisingly dramatic results: After just six months, people who walked a mile or more each day, several times a week, were scoring higher on memory tests. And walking outside can increase the benefits — Vitamin D, the “sunshine vitamin,” seems to protect against brain impairments.
  • Exercising your brain. People who work in mentally demanding jobs seem to retain brain function longer, even when the “plaques and tangles” that signify Alzheimer’s Disease show up. Taking new classes, working crossword puzzles, learning a new language, doing math problems in your head — these are all ways to exercise your brain.
  • Eating well. What’s good for your body is also good for your brain, says science. Not only does a diet high in fat seem to increase the rate at which Alzheimer’s develops, but eating plenty of vegetables can actually slow the brain’s decline. Balancing carbohydrates and proteins (both are needed) can also help.
  • Living well. Staying socially engaged throughout adulthood can also delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. Somehow, interacting with a variety of people — old friends and new acquaintances — in a variety of settings gives the brain opportunities to strengthen old connections and forge new ones.

Memory problems are common, but not all memory problems indicate Alzheimer’s. Forgetting someone’s name or misplacing your keys is more often the result of a normal slowing of mental processes that is a natural part of aging. On the other hand, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia inhibit a person’s ability to process new information, problem-solve, make sound judgements, and think abstractly.

Help and support

New discoveries about the brain are being made daily, and it’s difficult to say how long the information in this post will remain current. If you or a loved one has begun to experience symptoms you find troubling, schedule an appointment with your doctor to discuss your concerns and find out what the latest medical research reveals.

If you do find yourself facing a dementia diagnosis, the Providence Life Services communities listed below offer Memory Support. Contact the location nearest you for information and advice:

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