Aging, Dementia, and Alzheimer’s
The term Alzheimer’s is often confused with dementia. In fact, most people are not certain about the meaning of both terms; Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common cause of dementia. According to the data for the year 2020, around 24 million people around the globe are living with AD. It is caused by an accumulation of plaques and tangles of neurofibers; they disrupt communications between brain cells and their ability to regenerate.
The disease starts off with mild memory problems and then slowly inevitably progresses to extreme difficulties performing daily tasks. Many factors can contribute to AD development; however, everyone approaching the age of 60 and older is at risk of having it – it is a frustrating fact. Certainly, some people are more susceptible to AD than others because of their genetics, lifestyles, and environment but old age is the most significant risk factor.
Dementia, on the other hand, is a term that describes a range of cognitive symptoms that present as a result of changes in brain structures; because of the decline in the ability to think, learn and recall memories, a person cannot function independently.
Strokes can lead to vascular dementia. This term refers to dementia that is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain. People with heart disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol are particularly more susceptible to this type of dementia than others.
Examples of cognitive symptoms
Problems with memory: People usually associate forgetfulness with normal aging; thus, it can be difficult to tell if the problems are due to old age or something more concerning. Below are some symptoms that most AD patients experience:
- Getting lost in their neighborhood
- losing or misplacing items in odd places
- repeating the same questions
- forgetting important appointments or events
Inability to do simple tasks or follow orders: Simple activities such as getting dressed, taking a shower, or eating become more difficult as the condition progresses.
Decreased concentration and confusion: Being confused about time and places are commonly observed in people with AD; the thinking process of dementia patients is altered, therefore, causing them to feel confused and often agitated, or even aggressive. Try to imagine yourself suddenly forgetting who you are, where you are, or what you are doing- that is what AD patients often feel.
Nature of Alzheimer’s Disease
AD is a debilitating disease. Patients often show apparent signs of AD in their 60s but, although extremely uncommon, the earliest onset can occur at any time between the age of 30 to 60. The changes in the brain take place years before the first sign appears and continue to worsen over time until the end of the patient’s life. They can live as long as 20 years after being diagnosed; however, at the late stage of AD, their physical and mental abilities are extremely impaired. At this point, they are prone to developing aspiration pneumonia- which is a common cause of death for late-stage AD patients- because they cannot swallow properly and food tends to lodge into their airways.
Up to today, there is still no cure for AD. But there are methods of prevention.
Once again, it comes down to you are what you eat. Following a healthy diet is one of the simplest ways to improve and preserve our brain’s performance. Most of us do not consume enough fruits and vegs but we engulf meat and sweets in excessive amounts- this poses a threat to our neuro networks.
Fruits and vegetables naturally enhance neuroplasticity (the ability of nerve cells to remodel and adapt as needed) but sugar and fats slow it down; diets of high saturated fat and sugar are linked to emotional distress and a decline in memory functions. They also contribute to a decrease in brain volume. Studies show that The Mediterranean diet can reduce plaques and neurofiber tangles in the brain. The diet primarily consists of plant-based ingredients with seafood, legumes, and nuts being the main source of protein. The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is another “brain-healthy” alternative; it is similar to the Mediterranean diet but it focuses more on keeping a low sodium intake.
MIND diet particularly aims to prevent dementia and rejuvenate brain cells. It is simply a modified combination of DASH and Mediterranean. This diet plan includes berries, leafy greens, grains, beans, olive oil, fish, poultry, and wine (a glass per day). Additionally, MIND diet specifically excludes certain kinds of dishes: Fried food, pastries, sweets, cheese, and red meat are off the table.
Every one of us can benefit from exercise no matter how old we are. An average person should get at least 150 min of cardio/aerobic activities per week. The benefit of cardio extends beyond improving heart health; it increases blood flow to the brain, hence promoting nerve connection formation and remodeling, particularly in the hippocampus, the region that is responsible for learning and forming memory.
Do not get discouraged if you are not a sporty type. A cardio session is not limited to running on a treadmill or jogging. Dancing, swimming, or even a brisk walk are also aerobic exercises. You just have to find a workout that you like so you can do it as a routine. The most important thing here is consistency.
Anxiety and mental illnesses are linked to a greater risk of AD. When compared to average individuals, patients who suffer from depression in their youth or adulthood are up 4 times more likely to develop AD later in life. Other conditions that are majorly associated with AD include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and alcohol addiction.
We often forget that mental well-being is crucial for physical well-being. In other words, being happy hugely contributes to being healthy. Positive emotions improve both our physical health and cognitive performance; therefore, we should never wait to take care of our minds.
Diet, exercise, and mindfulness – can it be any more cliche?
Many studies have been done to prove the health benefits of meditation. Research published by Frontiers Human Neuroscience (2021) focuses solely on the effect that regular meditation in patients with mild AD. The result is groundbreaking; after 6 months of observation, the brain cortex of those who had practiced routine meditation was higher in volume when compared to those who had not. Brain shrinkage is a normal process of aging, but, in AD patients, the cortex volume decreases more rapidly and drastically. The research suggests that long-term daily meditation can slow down the rate at which the brain shrinks.