December 3, 2013

Alzheimer's / Dementia Rates DOWN!

I have Parkinson’s disease and prostate cancer. But I follow the news about Alzheimer’s disease (AD) with similar interest . . . maybe even more. Slipping into a fog – overwhelming my family with care and worry and dissipating my estate and their legacy  – is my biggest health fear. .

So I was happy to find some “good” dementia news.The New England Journal of Medicine reported recently that people are less likely to develop dementia today than they were 20 years ago, and that the onset of cognitive impairment seems to be happening later in life than before. (That last finding isn't a "home free" pass for me.)

Study co-author Dr. Kenneth Langa at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor said:
We're very encouraged to see a growing number of studies from around the world that suggest that the risk of dementia may be falling due to rising levels of education and better prevention and treatment of key cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol. Our findings suggest that, even if we don't find a cure for Alzheimer's disease and dementia, there are social and lifestyle factors we can address to decrease our risk.
His team suggested that two key factors explain the positive trend:
  1. People are getting more education, which stimulates the brain, and
  2. People are getting treated for – or avoiding – heart disease, a major dementia risk factor.

Through the years, researchers have identified various factors they think lower our risk for dementia, including:
  • early and ongoing education, 
  • physical activity, 
  • retiring later, 
  • educated parents (especially the mother), 
  • maintaining social activities, 
  • and getting treatment for depression.
Everything on the list makes sense.  But this good trend doesn’t mean the number of AD cases – and other forms of dementia – will drop in the years ahead. The rate may fall, but the number of cases will rise as millions of Baby Boomers enter their senior years, creating the “most elderly” American population ever. Nonetheless, we’ll take the good news wherever we find it.

On November 27, 2013, study author Langa included this info in a blog post:

Research suggests there are some key factors that may delay or prevent Alzheimer’s:
  • Cardiovascular risk: Controlling risk factors that contribute to heart disease, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, smoking and obesity may also help prevent dementia.
  • Education: Early-life education seems important in decreasing risk, as does keeping your mind active and learning new things throughout adulthood, and even in older age. It was once thought that the brain couldn’t be changed later in life, but newer research suggests that the brain remains “plastic” and exercising your brain can lead to healthier brain cells and more connections between those cells.
  • Physical activity: One more reason to make exercise a priority. Moving and maintaining a healthy weight seem to influence your brain’s health too.
  • Keeping your day job: Retiring from your job later in life may also keep your brain active and healthy longer.
  • Educated parents: You can’t choose your parents, but if you’re born to an educated couple, you may have more luck in fighting off dementia. Previous research that we’ve done showed that particularly children with a more educated mother had a lower risk of Alzheimer’s. One possible explanation for this is that more-educated moms interact with and talk to their young children differently than less-educated moms.
  • Social Life: Playing cards, talking with friends, joining a book club, and going to religious services may keep your brain healthy by increasing social interactions and “exercising” your brain more than you would have by being alone.
  • Depression: A depressed mood may increase one’s risk of having thinking problems and cognitive decline, so seeking help for depression may be important, both for addressing the depressed mood itself and possibly for reducing the future risk of dementia.
I feel pretty good about his list. I may not have held on to my "day job" beyond age 65, but my post-retirement activities, e.g. this blog, have exercised my brain as much as my job did, And there's not much I could do about mother's only having a high school education. 

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