Friday, September 2, 2011

Forget Worrying About Dementia

     If you’re like me, every time you can't remember where you put your keys, or can't recall the name of a favorite actor playing in an old movie (or the name of the movie itself), you begin to worry that you’re starting down the long slide to dementia, if not downright Alzheimer’s. I know it's nothing to make light of ... but what else you gonna do?

     Just so you know: Alzheimer’s and dementia are different issues. Dementia refers to a set of symptoms that include memory loss, impairment of judgment and difficulty with language. Alzheimer's is a brain disease that accounts for 60 to70 percent of the cases of dementia, but other disorders such as vascular disease and Parkinson’s can also cause dementia.

     Currently, over 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s. Experts estimate that with our aging population, the number of cases will more than triple to over 16 million by the year 2050. Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s disease is still a mystery to medical science. Although there is clearly some genetic component, researchers do not understand what causes the disease – or even exactly what it is. Amyloid plaques are found in the brains of Alzheimer’s victims. But do the plaques cause the disease, or are they merely a symptom? Nobody knows.
      Doctors are working on tests to predict whether or not you will develop Alzheimer's, but so far there is nothing definitive. Pharmaceutical companies have produced drugs that ameliorate symptoms, but they have not found a cure. And if we haven't yet figured out how we get Alzheimer's, how can we possibly know how to prevent it? 

     There is no proof that we can. But a recent study from the University of California at San Francisco identified risk seven factors that may account for over half of Alzheimer's cases: The biggest risk factor is: 1) Physical inactivity. That's followed by 2) Depression; 3) Smoking; 4) Mid-life hypertension; 5) Mid-life obesity; 6) Low education; and 7) Diabetes.

     Said study author Deborah Barnes: "What's exciting is that this suggests that some very simple lifestyle changes, such as increasing physical activity and quitting smoking, could have tremendous impact on preventing Alzheimer's and other dementia."

     I'd argue that these lifestyle changes are not so "simple." But these are by and large the very same factors that put you at risk for heart disease and overall poor health, so this finding just provides additional motivation to make those changes -- giving up smoking, losing some weight, getting treatment for depression or anxiety, and engaging in some sort of physical activity like walking, biking, dancing or swimming.

     Other studies reported in the New York Times supported the UCSF conclusion. In addition, research has suggested that people who exercise and keep their minds engaged are better able to retain normal memory and brain function, even if they do develop the telltale brain plaques associated with Alzheimer's. Even more reason to go take an adult-education class at your community college, or join a bridge club or start doing crossword puzzles or the sudoko.

     Finally, in addition to the factors identified by UCSF, other studies have demonstrated that people who stay socially active are also at reduced risk for dementia. So don't stay home and watch TV or read a book. Go out and play golf with your buddies, or go to church and attend the after-service social hour, or join a group that plays poker or pinochle. Or ... if you do like to stick your nose in a book all day long, join a book club and socialize with other booklovers who can share your tastes and enthusiasms.

     So if I manage to avoid the long slide to dementia I have B and my buddies to thank. My buddies for playing golf with me. And B for luring me to dancing class.

     Meanwhile, everyone knows that Ronald Reagan suffered from Alzheimer's. So did Barry Goldwater and Charlton Heston. Rita Hayworth, Charles Bronson and Burgess Meredith. Iris Murdoch, E. B. White and Ross MacDonald. And Norman Rockwell and Willem DeKooning. The latest celebrity to fall victim is 75-year-old Glen Campbell, who announced just last month that he was suffering from the disease. So let's remember Glen Campbell, here from a live concert in 2006.


Kay Dennison said...

I refuse to worry about it. I was supposed to die over 30 years ago and didn't. And I decided that when it's time, I'll go.

Mac n' Janet said...

I"d like to believe that they know what they're talking about but the 2 people in my life who were diagnosed with Alzheimer were my Father-in-law, a thin, active man who was a noted artist and musician. The other was a friend of the family a petite lady author who traveled the world writing books after her retirement as a children's librarian. My Father-in-law was mostly self-educated, but he spoke 3 languages, played Flamenco guitar, had numerous students, had quit smoking years ago and the lady had a Master's Degree, never smoked and had a wide circle of friends. Yet they both had Alzheimer.

Olga said...

I wish I could stop worrying! My mom had dementia and so it feels just too close.

Douglas said...

My mother suffered from Alzheimer's (or so the doctors decreed). However, she did not fit within those parameters often associated with it. She was smart, happy-go-lucky, inquisitive, an avid reader, invented games, wrote short stories, painted,gregarious and never smoked except for a week (thinking it would help her lose weight). She had a wonderful memory and worked as a legal secretary for over 35 years. When her memory started to fail and the confusion set in, she took it in stride; still cheerful and optimistic.

And I watched her withdraw into a kind of childhood and then into a kind of infancy.

There are no reliable predictors for this or for dementia. said...

Interesting piece. God Bless Glen Campbell. I loved him years ago. Dianne

#1Nana said...

It really is a horrible condition. My father in law faded away...his essense was gone long before he died. It's frightening to know that I have so many of the contributing factors. A very interesting post.

Dick Klade said...

Several homeowners in an association where I collected fees for 14 years developed Alzheimers, or perhaps some other closely related form of dementia. It always was a terrible thing to witness. Sorry, but I can't think of one who was a good fit for Barnes' criteria.

Robert the Skeptic said...

We're dealing with my wife's father now, he's 88. He has had a mental assessment and is diagnosed with moderate Alzheimers. He recognized his short-term memory is gone (it's 10% for his age) but he is in denial regarding his "Executive Function", basically problem-solving skills, so he is almost unable to manage simple day to day problems.

But he walks every day and mows his own (huge) yard, which is his measure of his ability to remain independent. A car accident earlier this summer caused him to lose his driving privileges.

Retired English Teacher said...

I didn't know that about Glen Campbell. Thanks for the interesting post.

Nance said...

The title alone in this post was worth the price of admission.

Glen Campbell has a new album that works around and with his Alzheimers while showcasing his song writing talents and his dear, familiar voice.

About those lifestyle changes and prevention: I think those will be really helpful for our children's generation and beyond. They aren't really lifestyle changes you can make at 70 and expect to dodge a genetic bullet. Test results like these are confusing to people, because they usually don't spell out the deadline for a noticeable benefit from "lifestyle" changes.

Still, they are empowering and do improve other functions. Better to feel that we're doing all we can, even with a late start.

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

This is an interesting and important post, Tom. There is so much fear about dementia. It's one of the worst things I can imagine for myself. My father had Parkinson's related dementia and it was horrible. My mother insisted on keeping him at home and caring for him herself -- and she died four months after he did -- in a way, from sheer exhaustion. Dementia -- whether Alzheimer's or from another cause -- is a heartbreak for the entire family. A high school friend of mine who was two years younger than I am died of early onset Alzheimer's several years ago. The smart, spirited woman I knew totally disappeared into the illness. It was devastating to those who loved her. Thanks so much for the information from the studies about possible preventive measures. It can't hurt to get more active or social or intellectually stimulated!

Linda Myers said...

My mother had dementia when she died, but she still knew us. She was much easier to get along with in her last few years, as she apparently forgot her negative feelings about me. A mixed blessing, I guess!

Diet and exercise and friends. Good for whatever might ail us.

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