You recognize the actor’s face, but you forget her name; you know the meaning of the word you’re searching for, but can’t come up with the actual word; you forget where you parked the car or put the car keys.
These instances are frustrating—even embarrassing sometimes—and can incite worry over whether you’re suffering from simple forgetfulness or something more severe. Unlike age-related cognitive decline, which is often characterized by forgetting and then remembering, dementia is a chronic and worsening forgetfulness, confusion or inability to complete basic cognitive tasks, to the point that it’s interfering with daily life.
The illness can take a financial toll as well. According to a 2015 Alzheimer’s Association report, the total lifetime cost of care for someone with dementia is estimated to be $341,840.
Alzheimer’s screenings and medications
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia (accounting for about two-thirds of cases). The Alzheimer’s Association has come up with 10 early warning signs to distinguish between typical age-related cognitive issues and actual symptoms of dementia.
For example, there is a difference between forgetting where you put the car keys and not understanding what car keys are. If you’re worried about symptoms, it’s a good idea to schedule a visit with your primary care provider, who may refer you to a neurologist. The doctor will likely conduct a neurological exam, as well as a mental status test and other tests that can help diagnose Alzheimer’s.
Researchers don’t know the specific cause of Alzheimer’s, only that it involves the accumulation of plaques and tangles in the brain, which slowly kills brain cells. The FDA has approved two drugs that treat symptoms of dementia, such as memory loss and confusion. These drugs cannot reverse the damage to the brain cells, but they may slow it.
Five ways to help prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia
There is emerging evidence about how to lower your risk for dementia. Here are five things you can do to decrease your risk.
Exercise regularly: There have been many studies linking physical activity with improving cognition in older adults. It doesn’t seem to matter the type of exercise as much as the amount ( 30 minutes a day, three to four days a week), and that you stick with it (so find a type of exercise you enjoy and can do regularly).
Pay attention to diet: Research has linked the Mediterranean diet with lowering dementia risk. The Mediterranean diet has fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, olive oil and beans at its base, with moderate amounts of other animal products (poultry, dairy, eggs) and red wine, and very little red meat. A review study suggested the Mediterranean diet combined with the DASH diet, which is similar to the Mediterranean diet, but emphasizes food low in sodium, and saturated and trans fat, may be the best bet for keeping your brain healthy.
Increase social connections: Older people can sometimes become isolated, with weakening social connections. Increasing social engagement is a key pillar in lowering your dementia risk. Not only can friendships keep your brain stimulated, having a close friend or a group of people you can count on also goes a long way toward managing stress. Lowering your stress is yet one more way to reduce your risk for dementia.
Challenge your brain: One study found that certain kinds of “brain training” could reduce dementia risk by 29 percent. (You can see an example of a specific brain game study participants played here.) You can find plenty of other memory and cognitive games to help keep your brain sharp.
Reduce blood pressure and control diabetes: Having vascular disease—or narrowing of the arteries outside of your heart, such as those that lead to the brain—increases a person’s chance for developing dementia (sometimes called vascular dementia). High blood pressure and diabetes can lead to or worsen vascular disease. Keeping your blood pressure under control and managing diabetes is one more way to lower your risk for dementia.
Remember, continual worry about whether dementia is in your future will only lead to increased stress. Instead, live your best life now, follow a healthy lifestyle, stay engaged and keep moving.