The elderly are a treasure trove of wise and witty anecdotes. Their lifetime's worth of memories link us to the past and serve as a bridge to the future. Vivid recollections may even keep a person "young at heart." So when dementia deprives older people of memory, language, and ultimately, personality, it's not just devastating for them, it's a horrible loss for their family and friends as well.
Alzheimer's disease, caused by a steady accumulation of amyloid plaque proteins in the brain, is the most common source of dementia. About 4.5 million Americans have the disorder, and it is estimated that by the year 2050, that number could approach 20 million. There is no known cure. But recent research has uncovered a new gene—SORL1—that, when functioning normally, protects against and reduces the likelihood of developing Alzheimer's. The finding is bound to help unravel some of dementia's causes.
A family history of Alzheimer's and increasing age are primary risk factors. But there is growing evidence that improving your lifestyle and diet can preserve your mental faculties and cut your risk of developing mind-robbing disorders.
Stretch Your Mind. Don't let your thinking gears get rusty. Mental activity strengthens brain cells and neural connections, and may even give rise to new nerve cells. Engaging in stimulating leisure activities throughout your life can reduce the risk of dementia by about half, according to Australian researchers. Reading, writing, completing crossword puzzles, or even visiting a museum produces positive changes in the hippocampus, part of the brain affected by dementia. Mastering a new language is also beneficial: Among bilinguals, the onset of dementia begins some four years later than it does for monolinguals.
The brain's malleability allows for neural connections to continue to form late in life. Researchers at UC Irvine discovered that short, repeated learning sessions slowed the buildup of a protein in the brain known to lead to plaques and tangles—symptoms of Alzheimer's. The take-away for humans is that it's never too late to begin exercising your mind. Even ordinary activities done in a novel way, such as brushing your teeth with the opposite hand or taking a different route to work can enrich brain cell connections.
Keep in Touch. A strong network of family and friends can also lower your risk of dementia. Social activity lessens depression and reduces stress levels, which helps maintain connections among brain cells. Volunteering, joining a club, or traveling can add four years to one's life, according to Harvard researchers. It's no surprise then that lonely individuals, in their later years, may be twice as likely to develop the type of dementia linked to Alzheimer's.
Hit That Treadmill. One of the best ways to care for your mind is to keep your heart healthy. Aerobic exercise improves oxygen consumption, which benefits brain functioning. A brisk half hour walk, bicycling, swimming, or dancing each day promotes good blood flow to the brain and stimulates new brain-cell growth. Such activity lowers the risk of dementia and slows cognitive decline in those who already have dementia. Because of the connection between the brain and cardiovascular system, reducing risks of heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes also protects against Alzheimer's disease.
Brain Food. Eating an apple a day could keep Alzheimer's away. Apples and apple juice, along with a balanced diet, can protect against cell damage linked to age-related memory loss, according to research from Cornell University and the University of Massachusetts. Fresh apples contain high levels of the antioxidant quercetin; eating at least one a day can help protect brain cells against oxidative stress, a tissue-damaging process associated with Alzheimer's.
Fresh veggies and fish are just as good for your brain as they are for your body. Eating foods rich in folate, along with the use of supplements, may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's, suggests a report in Archives of Neurology. Folate can be found in spinach, dry beans, peas, fortified cereals, grain products, and some fruits and vegetables. And those who eat fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, trout, and albacore tuna) have higher levels of the fatty acid DHA in their blood, which significantly lowers the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer's.
And as we grow older, each of us becomes more likely to experience intermittent bouts of forgetfulness. But taking action now could help ensure that you'll remain sharp for years to come—with plenty of tales to tell.