The Time To Think About Dementia Is Now!
“We remember their love when they can no longer remember”
There is no treatment to cure dementia, but can it be delayed or prevented? It is a question that continues to both intrigue and plague researchers and continues to fuel new investigations. While there are no easy answers, promising new research reveals that up to one-third of the world’s dementia cases could be prevented with simple lifestyle changes.
About 5.3 million people in the United States experience some form of dementia, ranging from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s disease. By 2050, that number is projected to triple. It is, by far, one of the most monumental challenges within healthcare – but not because of the cost (and it is costly), but because of something far deeper and more personal. In most of medicine, we know where to put our finger. If there is heart disease, broken bone, or even cancer, no matter how complex the problem is, there is at least a mark for which to aim. But with dementia, the mark is much harder to find, and the personal complexities are devastating.
Dementia is so different. While one of the hallmarks is the loss of memory, far more is at stake. This is because it is memory which creates continuity, clarity, and meaning in our lives. And the cause of privation is the moving target at researchers aim – and they are making remarkable headway.
Recently, a new report was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London which was compiled by the first Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention and Care. The report brought together 24 experts from around the world and synthesized their individual studies into a model reflecting the effects of lifestyle modification on the risk of dementia.
The Lancet-appointed panel estimates that about 35 percent of all dementia cases are attributable to nine risk factors which people could potentially change. And those changes should be considered early in life. The risk factors include years of education before age 15; high blood pressure, obesity, and hearing loss in middle age; and diabetes, physical inactivity, social isolation, smoking, and depression in later life.
The researchers considered each of the nine risk factors individually, how they related to one another, and calculated how much modification could each potentially decrease the risk of dementia. The nine risk factors, which are described as potentially modifiable, add up to 35 percent. The remaining 65 percent of dementia risk is thought to be non-modifiable.
Although dementia is diagnosed later in life, the brain changes begin to develop years before. The study suggests that acting now can decrease risks of dementia as well as improve the lives of those already suffering its effects.
The study examines the benefits of building a “cognitive reserve” by strengthening the brain’s networks so it can continue to function later in life.
A healthy plant-based diet is associated with better present cognitive function and in lowering the risk of later cognitive impairment later in life. Additionally, the plant-based diet also has a direct impact on other dementia risk factors such as obesity and high blood pressure.
“Eating a healthy plant-based diet is associated with better cognitive function and around 30% to 35% lower risk of cognitive impairment during aging,” said lead author Claire McEvoy, of the University of California, San Francisco’s School of Medicine.
The diet is simple: plant-based cooking with the majority of each meal consisting of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, and seed. Meat and dairy are included infrequently and in much smaller portions than in the traditional Western dish. Instead, fish is a favored protein, butter is used rarely, if ever, and instead, meals are prepared using olive oil.
Education before the age of 15 also had an impact according to the study, and continued learning into adulthood could also play a significant role in reducing one’s risk or in delaying the effects of dementia.
Managing other risk factors by staying physically and socially active, and addressing hearing loss and depression also work together to make the brain much more resilient and resistant to dementia’s effects, the study reveals.
Experts agree that dementia, like other chronic conditions, probably develops as a result of complex interactions between numerous factors including age, genetics, and lifestyle. Some of those factors can be changed or modified, while others cannot. All agree that the need for continued large-scale study continues. Healthy Kansas City magazine looks forward to the evidence that can lead to breakthrough treatments, and perhaps someday a cure.