The latest numbers on Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are pretty staggering. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. And that number is projected to rise to 16 million by 2050. Women make up nearly two-thirds of the affected population. While African-Americans and Hispanics have a significantly greater chance of suffering from the disease (2 times and 1.5 times more likely, respectively).
In 2017, Alzheimer’s and other dementias will cost the U.S. $259 billion and 1 in 3 seniors will die with some form of dementia. While other leading causes of death have declined in recent years, Alzheimer’s deaths have risen sharply, and that increase is expected to continue (heart disease deaths have dropped 14% since 2000, while Alzheimer’s deaths have risen 89%).
Perhaps all this comes as no surprise. It’s very likely you know someone afflicted with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. After all, 1 in 10 people over age 65 has Alzheimer’s – that doesn’t even account for the many other forms of dementia that afflict seniors..
The high cost of dementia
We fantasize about our retirement as being full of travel, family, freedom, and enjoyment. But dementia can steal the life from our retirement. And the costs associated with dementia care can steal just as much from our retirement savings and from our loved ones.
This could lead to a significantly less comfortable retirement for a spouse or less money left behind for children and grandchildren. Not to mention the additional financial and emotional toll on family members caring for loved ones.
Ultimately, dementia robs us of the amazing experience of a fulfilling retirement. Which begs the question: is there anything we can do to stop it?
No cure yet
According to the Alzheimer’s Association there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Although there are drug treatments that can temporarily improve symptoms, nothing has been found to reverse or completely prevent dementia.
Alzheimer’s and dementia researchers continue to work to find a cure. And we’re going to need one. In a recent TED Talk, Alzheimer’s researcher Rudy Tanzi said as baby boomers age and begin to contract the illness, 1 in 3 Medicare and Medicaid dollars will go to dementia treatment, which will essentially break our healthcare system (currently, we spend 1 in 5 Medicare/Medicaid dollars to fight Alzheimer’s).
Basically, whether you get dementia or not, the dementia crisis will affect all of us.
You can do something about it
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, it appears cognitive decline may be the result of a cocktail of complex interactions – some of which you can control. The Association says the disease probably develops due to a combination of “age, genetics, environment, lifestyle, and coexisting medical conditions.”
Less than 1% of people with Alzheimer’s have the early-onset version of the disease associated with rare genetic mutations. Those people are guaranteed to develop the disease. But that means the majority of us could focus on limiting our cognitive decline through lifestyle changes we can control.
A recent report from the Lancet Commission concluded, more than a third of cases of dementia could be prevented if the following risk factors were eliminated: low educational level in childhood, hearing loss, hypertension, obesity, smoking, depression, physical inactivity, social isolation, and diabetes.
There is something we can do. Sources from the Mayo Clinic to the Alzheimer’s Association and beyond recommend the basic tenets of a healthy lifestyle to decrease risk. That means regular exercise, a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, moderate alcohol consumption, not smoking, good sleep, and lots of mental and social activity through games and social engagement. These lifestyle changes may promote neuroplasticity, brain activity that keeps neurons firing and making new connections.
7 Things You Can Start Doing Today to Lower Your Risk of Dementia
1. Garden. Research suggests gardening may be a great form of therapy for people with Alzheimer’s and a way to lower your risk of getting some type of dementia. Gardening combines physical exercise with mental and sensory engagement. A person working in a garden has the opportunity to see, hear, smell, touch, and taste, all at the same time. This kind of sensory engagement creates new connections in the brain that can ward off cognitive decline. Additionally, gardening leads to healthier eating, which is one of the important lifestyle changes you can make to decrease your dementia risk.
2. Speed of processing training. While the science around certain brain games has been under some scrutiny recently, a study, which compared groups of seniors who were given training with one type of brain game called speed of processing training—showed those who were given extra training were less likely to be diagnosed with dementia. As for other brain training games and puzzles, while the hard science is currently lacking, maintaining an active brain through any type playful activity fits within the healthy lifestyle recommended to limit cognitive decline. Anything that gets you thinking and making new connections could help. Just don’t let those computer games keep you from getting out to exercise and socialize.
3. Pickleball. Pickleball is a simple, easy-to-play, all-ages, non contact sport resembling components of tennis, badminton, and table tennis. It’s been a hit with everyone from elementary PE classes to adults to senior citizens across the country, providing for good exercise and the opportunity to connect socially (it’s most commonly played as a mixed-gender doubles game). Plus, with the Alzheimer’s Association warning of the dangerous connection between head injuries and dementia, the speed-of-play and lack of contact don’t invite near the number of head injuries associated with many other sports.
4. Party (moderately). Here’s a surprising find. Recent studies have found moderate alcohol intake can reduce the risk of dementia. But, put an emphasis on the moderation seriously. Heavy drinking (3-5 drinks per day) increases dementia risk. Combine moderate drinking with the recommended social engagement and you could party your way to a lower dementia risk.
5. Learn a new language. Recent studies suggest learning a new language could help prevent Alzheimer’s. While these studies show lifelong bilingualism may delay dementia’s onset, many dementia experts recommend continuing education to help limit cognitive decline. So, perhaps it’s never too late to start. You might even be able to make a new social connection with someone whose native language you’re learning.
6. Take a class. Whether you’re at a community college, a community center, or auditing a course at a major university. Lifelong learning may help in reducing cognitive decline. According to a 2014 study conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology, people with higher education and more intellectually demanding jobs have higher levels of cognition. And those who continued to learn in mid/later life – whether or not they had high levels of education or occupation earlier in life – could still significantly boost their cognition levels. The study concluded, “Lifetime intellectual enrichment might delay the onset of cognitive impairment and be used as a successful preventive intervention to reduce the impending dementia epidemic.”
7. Volunteer. A 2017 study concluded volunteering later in life results in lower self-reported cognitive complaints and a lower risk for dementia. This is great news because populations most at risk for developing dementia (seniors) also tend to have time to dedicate to causes and the desire to give back to their communities. It’s the perfect storm. Check out this article for more information on how, why, and where to volunteer.
Things to Consider:
- While some forms of dementia are genetic and can’t be avoided, less than 1% of people with Alzheimer’s have the early-onset type associated with genetic mutations.
- According to a report by the Lancet Commission, more than a third of dementia cases could be prevented by eliminating risk factors we control. These include: low educational levels in childhood, hearing loss, hypertension, obesity, smoking, depression, physical inactivity, social isolation, and diabetes.
- Current dementia resources suggest eating healthy and staying mentally, physically, and socially active throughout your entire life.