Most seniors experience some degree of memory loss over the course of aging. But when memory loss is severe — forgetting their children's or grandchildren's names, inability to recall where they live or who the President of the United States is, etc. — their concern naturally turns to new-onset dementia or Alzheimer's.
According to an NIH-funded study published last year by UCLA researchers, nearly 47 million American adults alive today may be at moderate to severe risk of developing Alzheimer's dementia later in life, based on criteria for a hypothetical "pre-clinical stage" of the disease, in which the disease process has begun, but is not yet manifesting symptoms.
It's tough to nail down predictions about Alzheimer's risk, because its wide-ranging possible causes aren't yet well-understood.
But there are several risk factors that seniors can take firm and decisive action to avoid. Let's talk about those today and discuss tips that you, or your older loved one, can use to cut Alzheimer's dementia risk.
1. Stay active, eat right and exercise
Two of the most strongly-associated risk factors for Alzheimer's disease are obesity and a sedentary lifestyle.
The less active you are over the course of your adulthood — even stretching back into young adulthood — the greater your risk of developing Alzheimer's dementia later. Likewise, the more overweight and out of shape you are, the more dementia risk you face.
The best way to avoid these risk factors is to budget time for, and develop the discipline to perform, regular exercise. Health care experts recommend that adults get at least 30 minutes of moderately challenging exercise, three to four days per week.
Some evidence has suggested that adhering to a low-carb, lean protein-heavy "Mediterranean diet," with the occasional glass of red wine, can improve both your heart health and your long-term brain health.
Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian and develop a nutrition plan that will help you lose weight and reduce your dementia risk.
2. Get enough sleep.
While we sleep, our bodies work to clear waste products (tau and amyloid proteins) out of of our brains, where they build over the course of the day. But we need to be deeply asleep — in what neurologists call a "slow wave" state — to accomplish the cleanup effectively.
If we don't reach deep sleep, tau and amyloid proteins build up in our brain tissues. They stick to each other, forming tangles and plaques that scientists often see on brain scans of Alzheimer's patients. Although it's not yet confirmed that amyloid plaques and tau bundles are the sole cause of Alzheimer's disease, they are thought to at least play a significant role in causing its symptoms.
So, most researchers advise, better safe than sorry. Make sure you get plenty of uninterrupted, nightly sleep. Use stress reduction techniques during the day, to avoid wakeful nights. Leave yourself at least seven to eight hours at a time for uninterrupted sleep.
If you have a sleep condition, such as apnea, that prevents you from getting good rest, seek treatment for it; sleep dysfunction has been linked to increased dementia risk.
And avoid heavy drinking, chronic sleep aid use, chronic marijuana use, or other substance abuse — all of these prevent you from reaching deep, REM sleep at night.
3. Keep learning.
Some studies have suggested that seniors who have engaged in the pursuit of new learning over the course of their lives may have a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer's and related dementia disorders.
The evidence on that isn't firm, but lifelong learning practices certainly can't hurt, and they can enrich your life besides.
Take classes at your local university or community center. Read books. Go experience new places — they don't have to be far away — and try different activities. Stretch your abilities.
Lifelong learning will keep you engaged, thinking positively and, maybe, dementia-free later in life.
Still have questions about Alzheimer's and dementia?
Never fear. Our memory care experts here at Deupree House have answers for you.
Download Episcopal Retirement Services' free Dementia Guidebook here. And, if you have questions about memory care in Cincinnati, we're happy to answer them for you. Contact us today.