Dementia

by MPC Foundation

As we age, we may become more forgetful, but does this equate to dementia?

First of all, let us understand what dementia is. Dementia is caused by damage to or loss of nerve cells and their connections in the brain. Depending on the area of the brain that's affected by the damage, dementia can affect people differently and cause different symptoms. The following table provides some examples of normal aging and possible dementia symptoms.

Risk factors
Many factors can eventually contribute to dementia. Some factors, such as age, can't be changed. Others can be addressed to reduce your risk.



Risk factors that can't be changed
Age. The risk rises as you age, especially after age 65. However, dementia isn't a normal part of aging, and dementia can occur in younger people.


Family history. Having a family history of dementia puts you at greater risk of developing the condition. However, many people with a family history never develop symptoms, and many people without a family history do. There are tests to determine whether you have certain genetic mutations.


Down syndrome. By middle age, many people with Down syndrome develop early-onset Alzheimer's disease.


Risk factors you can change
You might be able to control the following risk factors for dementia.

Diet and exercise. Research shows that lack of exercise increases the risk of dementia. And while no specific diet is known to reduce dementia risk, research indicates a greater incidence of dementia in people who eat an unhealthy diet compared with those who follow a Mediterranean-style diet rich in produce, whole grains, nuts and seeds.

Heavy alcohol use. If you drink large amounts of alcohol, you might have a higher risk of dementia. While some studies have shown that moderate amounts of alcohol might have a protective effect, results are inconsistent. The relationship between moderate amounts of alcohol and dementia risk isn't well-understood.

Cardiovascular risk factors. These include high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol, buildup of fats in your artery walls (atherosclerosis) and obesity.

Depression. Although not yet well-understood, late-life depression might indicate the development of dementia.

Diabetes. Having diabetes may increase your risk of dementia, especially if it's poorly controlled.

Smoking. Smoking might increase your risk of developing dementia and blood vessel (vascular) diseases.

Sleep apnea. People who snore and have episodes where they frequently stop breathing while asleep may have reversible memory loss.

Vitamin and nutritional deficiencies. Low levels of vitamin D, vitamin B-6, vitamin B-12 and folate may increase your risk of dementia.


Complications

Dementia can affect many body systems and, therefore, the ability to function. Dementia can lead to:

Poor nutrition. Many people with dementia eventually reduce or stop eating, affecting their nutrient intake. Ultimately, they may be unable to chew and swallow.

Pneumonia. Difficulty swallowing increases the risk of choking or aspirating food into the lungs, which can block breathing and cause pneumonia.

Inability to perform self-care tasks. As dementia progresses, it can interfere with bathing, dressing, brushing hair or teeth, using the toilet independently, and taking medications accurately.

Personal safety challenges. Some day-to-day situations can present safety issues for people with dementia, including driving, cooking and walking alone.

Death. Late-stage dementia results in coma and death, often from infection.


Prevention
There's no sure way to prevent dementia, but there are steps you can take that might help. More research is needed, but it might be beneficial to do the following:

Keep your mind active. Mentally stimulating activities, such as reading, solving puzzles and playing word games, and memory training might delay the onset of dementia and decrease its effects.

Be physically and socially active. Physical activity and social interaction might delay the onset of dementia and reduce its symptoms. Move more and aim for 150 minutes of exercise a week.

Quit smoking. Some studies have shown that smoking in middle age and beyond may increase your risk of dementia and blood vessel (vascular) conditions. Quitting smoking might reduce your risk and will improve your health.

Get enough vitamins. Some research suggests that people with low levels of vitamin D in their blood are more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. You can get vitamin D through certain foods, supplements and sun exposure.

More study is needed before an increase in vitamin D intake is recommended for preventing dementia, but it's a good idea to make sure you get adequate vitamin D. Taking a daily B-complex vitamin and vitamin C may also be helpful.


Manage cardiovascular risk factors. Treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and high body mass index (BMI). High blood pressure might lead to a higher risk of some types of dementia. More research is needed to determine whether treating high blood pressure may reduce the risk of dementia.

Treat health conditions. See your doctor for treatment if you experience hearing loss, depression or anxiety.

Maintain a healthy diet. Eating a healthy diet is important for many reasons, but a diet such as the Mediterranean diet — rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and omega-3 fatty acids, which are commonly found in certain fish and nuts — might promote health and lower your risk of developing dementia. This type of diet also improves cardiovascular health, which may help lower dementia risk. Try eating fatty fish such as salmon three times a week, and a handful of nuts — especially almonds and walnuts — daily.

Get quality sleep. Practice good sleep hygiene, and talk to your doctor if you snore loudly or have periods where you stop breathing or gasp during sleep.


When to see a doctor
See a doctor if you or a loved one has memory problems or other dementia symptoms. They are able to make appropriate assessments and refer you to suitable resources.