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.