April 03, 2019
5 questions and answers to know
Families across the country have been touched by a dementia diagnosis. Approximately 5.7 million people are living with dementia in the United States. Although it is a condition that can be difficult, it does not have to be one to fear, and there are actions you can take to reduce your risk.
"Studies on "cognitive life expectancy" -- how long older adults live with good versus diminishing brain health -- show that people spend more than a dozen years in good cognitive health after the age of 65," explained Saramma George, MD, family physician with Georgetown Center for Adult Medicine. "Even when dementia symptoms surface, many seniors retain an overall sense of well-being."
What is dementia?
Dementia is defined as a memory disorder involving damage to nerve cells in the brain, resulting in diminished capacity to some aspects of memory and the ability to perform typical activities of daily living. It affects everyone differently, depending upon which area of their brain has been damaged. Dementia is not a normal part of aging.
Alzheimer's is the most common of the estimated 50+ types of dementia. Other common types include vascular dementia -- caused by stroke -- and mixed dementia, which is a combination of the two. Dementia can also be caused by traumatic brain injury, chronic alcoholism or encephalitis, among other conditions.
How does dementia affect the body?
Dementia can affect many different systems in the body and the ability of the body to function as a whole, resulting in:
Many people with dementia eventually reduce or stop their intake of nutrients. Ultimately, they may be unable to chew and swallow.
Difficulty swallowing increases the risk of choking or aspirating food into the lungs, which can block breathing and cause pneumonia.
Inability to perform self-care tasks
As dementia progresses, it can interfere with bathing, dressing, brushing hair or teeth, using the toilet independently and taking medications accurately.
Personal safety challenges
Some day-to-day situations can present safety issues for people with dementia, including driving, cooking and walking alone.
Late-stage dementia results in coma and death, often from infection.
How can you prevent dementia?
While there's no sure way to prevent dementia, there are steps that might help. More research is needed, but it could be beneficial to:
Keep your mind active
Mentally-stimulating activities, such as reading, solving puzzles and playing word games may delay the onset of dementia and decrease its effects.
Be physically and socially active
Physical activity and social interaction could delay the onset of dementia and reduce its symptoms. Move more and aim for 150 minutes of exercise a week.
Some studies have shown smoking in middle age and beyond may increase your risk of dementia and blood vessel (vascular) conditions. Quitting smoking might reduce your risk and will improve your health.
Get enough vitamin D
Research suggests that people with low levels of vitamin D in their blood are more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. You can get vitamin D through certain foods, supplements and sun exposure. In general, it's a good idea to make sure you get enough vitamin D.
Lower your blood pressure
High blood pressure may lead to a higher risk of some types of dementia.
A healthy diet is important for many reasons, but a diet such as the Mediterranean diet -- rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and omega-3 fatty acids, commonly found in certain fish and nuts -- might promote health and lower your risk of developing dementia.
What other risk factors can I change?
You can take steps to lessen these risks of developing dementia.
Heavy alcohol use
If you drink large amounts of alcohol, you might have a higher risk of dementia. Some studies, however, have shown that moderate amounts of alcohol might have a protective effect. Discuss the proper amount with your doctor, not your bartender.
Cardiovascular risk factors
High blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol, buildup of fats in artery walls (atherosclerosis) and obesity could all increase the risk for dementia.
Although still being researched, some data shows late-life depression may be a factor in the development of dementia.
If you have diabetes, you might have an increased risk of dementia, especially if it's poorly controlled.
Smoking might increase your risk of developing dementia and blood vessel (vascular) diseases.
People who snore and have episodes where they frequently stop breathing while asleep may have reversible memory loss.
When is the right time to see a doctor?
See a doctor if you or a loved one has memory problems or other dementia symptoms. Because some treatable medical conditions can cause dementia-like symptoms, it's important to determine the underlying cause as soon as possible.
Georgetown Center for Adult Medicine has specialists ready to answer your questions about dementia. Contact our Sun City location, 105 Wildwood Drive in Georgetown, (512) 763-4060.