alzheimer's hand being touched by a caregiver

Alzheimer’s and dementia have touched the lives of so many of us. Not only the people afflicted, but their families and friends. Everyone is impacted when someone is impaired. June is the month for learning about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and also how to keep our brains as healthy as possible and functioning well into our 70’s, 80’s and beyond. 

Right now, in 2020, 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s and dementia. This number could soar to 13.8 million by 2050 barring new medical interventions. 

What’s the difference between Dementia and Alzheimer’s?

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, dementia is a general term that encompasses the loss of memory or other mental abilities that interfere with life. Alzheimer’s is one type of dementia. 60 percent to 80 percent of dementia cases are attributed to Alzheimer’s, a progressive brain disease that causes serious memory and cognitive impairment. 

Alzheimer’s is caused by abnormal protein deposits that build up in the brain causing functioning brain cells to die. As the disease progresses, more brain cells and brain pathways are affected leading to loss of memory, inability to do simple tasks, and disruptions in day to day life. As the disease progresses, people do less and less, they forget how to care for themselves, become less mobile and some develop trouble swallowing. All of this leads to declines in health and relationships. In addition, as they become less mobile, they are then more prone to blood clots, pneumonia, and infections – which are the leading causes of death in those with Alzheimer’s.  

Ways to a Healthier Brain

Before you get depressed, you can maximize your brain’s function. How? There’s no magic pill or supplement, it’s the tried and true advice you might expect: 

  • Regular Exercise
  • Healthy Nutrition
  • Keeping a Low blood pressure! 

What is good for your heart, also helps your brain. What! What?  Yes, really!

There is evidence that healthy blood vessels are linked to a healthy brain. This means that the opposite is true, heart-damaging conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol also are risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s. When you exercise your increased heart-rate pumps more oxygen to your brain. The release of hormones and other chemical changes encourage the growth of brain cells and improve mood and thinking. 

You know this, but it’s worth repeating, weight control and high-nutrition, high fiber eating are keys to maintaining healthy blood pressure, avoiding diabetes, and high cholesterol. To learn more, see my blogs on senior fitness , healthy eating, and blood pressure.

Give Your Brain a Workout Too

Cognitive scientists tell us we need to pay attention to our “brain reserve.” We build up this reserve over a lifetime of learning, work, activities, hobbies, and social interactions. In midlife, and beyond, we can’t let it shrink; this reserve keeps your brain resilient, adaptable, and able to resist damage. This is where Spanish lessons, learning the ukulele, volunteering, and an endless list of activities, like doing the crossword puzzle, and other positive habits can maintain and improve your brain reserve. 

Old School Memorizing 

Our parents and grandparents did it–we don’t so much anymore. Who still even has a phone number in their head? Memorizing famous poems, speeches, and song lyrics, along with math facts used to be something everyone did. Let’s bring it back. The ability to recite a piece of writing from memory can be an impressive and entertaining addition to a gathering. Even on Zoom. 

Here’s an idea: Give your children or grandchildren a challenge–both of you memorize the same passage from their favorite book. Then see who can recite it from memory on your next video call. No cheating! You can’t look. There is also a great benefit for us all from musical memorization, hearing familiar music, and singing along.

 “Older adults who work their brains through memorization are stimulating neural plasticity, which alters the brain’s neural pathways in response to new experiences,” says Marwan Sabbagh, MD, Director of Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. “These functional brain changes occur whenever we acquire new knowledge or learn a new skill, and they appear to be important in warding off cognitive decline.”

Keep Working?

Studies have shown that those who worked longer outlived those who retired early. Some benefits of work and continued volunteering are:

  • Sense of purpose
  • More social interaction
  • Increased physical activity
  • Financial security
  • Intellectual stimulation

Of course, most of these can be gained outside of regular employment, but it takes a little more effort and creativity. Social engagement, and jobs that require it, are known to be especially good for brain health. Now that social distancing will be a fact of life for quite a while, we will have to be more pro-active and more creative than ever. Learning to use a video chat platform (sometimes frustrating) and then regularly checking in with friends and family, is a double brain boost! 

Positive Thinking (Really)

A new University College London led a study published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia shows that in people over age 55 repetitive negative thinking (RNT) is linked to subsequent cognitive decline as well as the formation of harmful brain proteins linked to Alzheimer’s. Persistent negativity is stressful, and stress is bad for your mental and cognitive health. Researchers call for further investigation of RNT as a potential risk factor for dementia, and for more study into the use of mindfulness training and meditation as ways to mitigate risk. Also, a reminder that depression and anxiety need to be addressed early and treated. 

Here is a link to Alzheimer’ where many will be donating towards research and care in honor of loved ones. Caring for and relating to a person with dementia is very challenging. In my blog Compassionate Communication I discuss ways to talk and share with love and respect.

Please share with me what you’re doing to keep your brain happy and healthy.

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