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Reducing the risk of dementia

April 3rd, 2014 11:15 am by Marie Browning, MS, CNW

Reducing the risk of dementia

"Over 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's, and as many as 16 million will have the disease in 2050. Nearly one in every three seniors who dies each year has Alzheimer's or another dementia. The cost of caring for those with Alzheimer's and other dementias is estimated to total $203 billion in 2013, increasing to $1.2 trillion (in today's dollars) by mid-century." — Alzheimer's Association

Dementia. Just the word itself strikes fear in us. First, let me clarify the term dementia. Dementia is a general term for the loss of brain function related to memory, thinking, judgment and behavior when it becomes severe enough to interfere with daily life.

There are many causes of dementia. The leading cause of dementia in the U.S. is Alzheimer's disease, but vascular dementia resulting from stroke is close behind. Other less common conditions and diseases can also cause dementia, but it is important that you understand that dementia is not an inevitable, normal part of aging. I cannot begin to cover all aspects of cognitive health in this article, but I hope you will benefit from the information I do provide.

Some other common terms and diseases associated with dementia include cognitive impairment, dementia with Lewy bodies, progressive supranuclear palsy (rare, but becoming more common), Parkinson's disease (50 percent to 80 percent eventually develop dementia).

We know that amyloid protein plaque and neurofibrillary tangles (containing a protein called tau) are two of the hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease (AD). However, many studies, including the famous nun study ("Aging With Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives" by David Snowdon), have found that it is possible to have significant plaque and tau tangles with minimal or no apparent cognitive decline, so clearly there are many other factors to consider.

Scientists disagree on issues surrounding plaque and tangle formation. We do know that persons with dementia have more of them than persons who have no cognitive impairment. We also know that there are several lifestyle habits that can improve brain function despite the presence of plaque or tangles.

Acetylcholine is a crucial neurotransmitter that is lost as brain deterioration progresses. Alzheimer's medications have an ingredient to boost acetylcholine. The herb rosemary contains a dozen substances that protect acetylcholine.

Because we are all at risk for developing some type of dementia in our lifetimes, it's very important that we begin to do everything possible to prevent the development of dementia and learn about the earliest symptoms. There are genes that make us more likely to develop diseases like Alzheimer's, but the science of epigenetics tells us very clearly that genes can be switched on or off by nutrition and lifestyle.

The most important thing I can tell you is this: early prevention is crucial. Once the symptoms have become noticeable, there is very little that can be done to stop the progression. It is virtually impossible to notice them in yourself, so if someone close to you notices significant signs, please voice your concerns and have yourself checked out!

Unfortunately, as I have personally experienced, it is easy to dismiss some of the earliest signs in loved ones, especially in younger individuals. Early onset dementia (before age 65) is increasingly common, and commonly missed. The progressive loss of cognitive function is rarely steady or predictable. A person can behave normally part of the day while experiencing significant cognitive impairment several times during that day. Also, during the earlier stages, many people are often able to conceal their symptoms for brief periods of time.

We all lose or forget things from time to time, and have days when stress or fatigue causes us to feel "off" our game, but the person with dementia experiences these things differently. In hindsight, I realized that my loved one had begun showing distinct "red flag" symptoms at least five years before I acknowledged that something was truly wrong.

Symptoms to watch for:

* Significant short-term memory loss that increasingly impacts work and social interactions.

* Confusion in time and place.

* Significant personality changes, moodiness, increased irritability, uncharacteristic hostility.

* Relatively sudden loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed.

* Withdrawal, apathy, suspicion of others, fear of unfamiliar situations.

* Difficulty in communicating thoughts and comprehending/following conversations.

* Losing things, putting things in inappropriate places, blaming others for lost items.

* Dressing totally inappropriately for the weather or occasion.

* Difficulty with abstract thinking or with performing familiar tasks.

* Indifference, loss of interest, decrease of facial expressions when interacting with others

* Severe visual impairment unrelated to cataracts or macular degeneration.

* Behavioral issues that seem to worsen in the late afternoon (known as sundowning).

* Overreacting or having major emotional responses to minor problems or situations.

What you can do:

We have three main goals in preserving brain and cognitive function as we age. One is to prevent damage, another is to mitigate the damage, and a third is to maximize the brain's flexibility and ability to function despite any damage. 

To reach these goals:

* Minimize inflammation by fighting it at the source.

* Maintain low homocysteine by emphasizing these foods: leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli, beans, avocado, fish, lamb, eggs, brewer's yeast, pistachios, pine nuts.

* Avoid sugar, which causes serious inflammation. The higher your blood sugar (even if you don't have diabetes) the higher your risk of Alzheimer's.

* Avoid chemical toxins present in home, work, yard, pharmaceutical and personal care products. Heavy metals like mercury and aluminum are found in many products including deodorants, food colors, fish and even vaccines. The herb cilantro can help the body get rid of heavy metals, so enjoy it often!

* Avoid food additives such as artificial sweeteners and MSG, all known to harm brain cells.

* Avoid all tobacco smoke.

* Do not abuse alcohol. One glass of red wine is beneficial, more is not.

* Eat a diet rich in colorful vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices (turmeric, garlic, rosemary), which are all high in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory substances.

* Avoid processed food.

* Consume healthy fats like coconut oil and fish oils, which provide critical brain nutrients.

* Drink tea (all types) and coffee on a regular basis. Coffee may cut risk of dementia by more than 50 percent. (See my article on coffee.)

* Consider quality supplements like turmeric, phosphatidylserine and vitamin D (Low D increases risk of cognitive decline by 40 percent to 60 percent, Alzheimer's by 77 percent)

* Maximize oxygenation/blood flow by getting regular exercise and breathing more deeply. New studies are finding that the more one sits, the higher one's risk of any disease.

* Maximize brain connections, higher processing skills, positive plasticity in the following ways:

Music stimulates many areas of the brain — play an instrument, sing aloud.

Try out new activities on a regular basis. Learn a new language (bilingualism offers significant protection). Memorize passages of books or movies that you like.

Participate in regular social interaction. Laugh hard on a regular basis!

Learn to minimize or manage stress. Learn to meditate and practice it daily.

Develop a good attitude and outlook on life — spirituality, freedom from anger/resentment.

Make an effort to cultivate a rich vocabulary by reading and discussing more complex material. Never stop learning.

Make use of all your senses: pay attention to aromas, colors, sounds and so forth.

Avoid spending hours watching television or in passive activities that require little effort.

The more you exercise your body, the stronger it becomes. The same is true for your brain; use it or lose it. Growing old with an active, sharp mind is a wonderful gift; give yourself every possible chance of reaching that goal. There's no time to lose!

Marie Browning, MS, CNW is certified in holistic nutrition. Her spring wellness programs for women are just starting. Learn more at or at Healthier Solutions by Marie on Facebook. You can also contact her at (423) 367-1396.

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