One in every five Americans aged 65 or above suffers from cognitive impairment, while one in every seven is diagnosed with dementia. That number is projected to triple by 2050. Alzheimer’s, the leading cause of dementia, affects approximately 6.5 million Americans.
Understanding Dementia and Alzheimer’s
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, dementia is a “general term for loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking abilities that are severe enough to interfere with daily life.” Alzheimer’s, on the other hand, is a specific cause of dementia, accounting for 60% to 80% of all dementia cases.
Dementia can affect a person’s memory, reasoning, behavior, feelings, and cognitive skills — and it’s not a normal part of aging. There are several types of dementia, including mixed dementia, which is when more than one type of dementia occurs at once.
Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease that can lead to dementia with symptoms that worsen over time. These include disorientation, confusion, and trouble remembering new information.
Most cases of Alzheimer’s occur in the elderly, and the risk doubles every five years after the age 65. Other risk factors include:
- Family history
- Down’s Syndrome
- Head injuries
- Cardiovascular disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
Factors that are associated with Alzheimer’s but not causative include hearing loss, untreated depression, social isolation, feelings of loneliness and a sedentary lifestyle.
There is also a variation of Alzheimer’s that affects people younger than 65. It can start anywhere in a person’s 30s. Approximately 200,000 Americans have early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Both dementia and Alzheimer’s are signs of an unhealthy brain. They both cause problems with cognition, which includes a spectrum of intellectual-related activities like remembering, reasoning, communicating, and problem solving. These essential cognition activities are what enable people to navigate the world independently and successfully.
The Role of Primary Care Physicians in Preventing Dementia & Alzheimer’s
According to the American Stroke Association/American Heart Association, primary care clinics can play a major role in preserving the brain health of their patients.
First, your primary care physician should monitor you as you age. Dementia often isn’t something that happens suddenly. It progresses. Second, your primary care physician can screen for risk factors. Not only should they check your physical health, but your social and emotional health so that they can identify depression, loneliness, or other related factors.
According to the American Heart Association (AMA), there are six risk factors that affect general brain health:
- Social isolation
- Excessive alcohol use
- Sleep disorders
- Less education
- Hearing loss
Being Proactive in the Fight Against Dementia & Alzheimer’s
While your primary care physician should proactively screen for dementia risk factors, you and your family members should also be on the lookout. Your physician can recommend healthy behaviors and activities but only you can actually implement them. Having the support of family and friends can be crucial in making forward strides.
The American Stroke Association/American Heart Association has a list of “Life’s Essential 8,” which includes eight things everyone can do to keep themselves healthy in the long-run. The list is broken down into two groups of four health behaviors and four health factor..
Health behaviors include:
- Eat better: Healthy eating habits influence your quality of life
- Be more active: Follow CDC guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week
- Quit tobacco: Smoking nicotine products is the number one cause of preventable death
- Get healthy sleep: Seven to nine hours of sleep is ideal for most adults
Health factors include:
- Manage weight: A healthy weight has many benefits
- Control cholesterol: Too much bad cholesterol can damage your heart
- Manage blood sugar: Continual high blood sugar can lead to heart, kidney, eye, and nerve damage
- Manage blood pressure: High blood pressure can lead to heart disease, stroke, or brain problems. Low blood pressure can cause mild to severe health issues.
These eight guidelines are easy to read but much harder to do. Each requires significant time and investment. However, following them gives you the best chance for keeping your body and brain at optimal health.
Additional Preventative Measures
In addition to following “Life’s Essential 8” there are several other things you can do to ward off dementia.
- If you feel depressed, seek help.
- If you feel lonely, seek social interaction.
- Don’t drink too much alcohol
- Keep your brain active by studying, playing games, and more
- If you have hearing loss, seek treatment
Fighting Dementia and Alzheimer’s Together Globally, dementia cost $818 billion in 2015 – more than heart disease or cancer. The American Heart Association, Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, Oskar Fischer Project, and Henrietta B. and Frederick H. Bugher Foundation have committed over $43 million to fund research on dementia, Alzheimer’s, and brain health. Together, we can make a difference.