For many, it’s their worst nightmare: coming to the twilight years and being unable to function independently, unable to perform the simplest tasks like feeding themselves, and forgetting even those they hold most dear.
This fear isn’t unfounded: almost 50 million people suffer from dementia worldwide; in the United States alone, Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death and almost twenty percent of Medicare costs is spent caring for people with this disease and other forms of dementia—and the numbers are increasing, expected to double by 2035.
Early stages of dementia can result in the inability to tie your shoe or fluently converse. In mid-term stages, you can get lost while walking to the mailbox. The final stage is characterized by almost complete dysfunction, requiring constant care.
Dementia isn’t one specific condition but an umbrella term for several (1):
- Alzheimer’s dementia – the most common form of dementia, it’s really a general term used for a degenerative neurological condition in which brain cells die, resulting in loss of memory and cognitive function
- Lewy-body – caused by protein deposits (Lewy bodies) that develop in brain nerve cells, the second most common form of dementia
- Frontotemporal – a subset of uncommon disorders that affect the parts of the brain responsible for behavior, personality, and language (the frontal and temporal lobes)
- HIV-associated – also known as AIDS Dementia Complex, cognitive decline in AIDS patients is often referred to in this way, as it is associated with HIV
- Vascular – caused by impeded blood flow to the brain, as can occur after a series of strokes
Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t occur overnight but is a cumulative, long-term condition that can begin twenty years before any symptoms present. It is the result of beta-amyloid (a type of protein) deposits in the brain that become tangled and prevent neurons from firing properly. This causes brain tissue atrophy over time due to inertia.
4 Bad Habits Linked To Dementia
As research into this debilitating and devastating form of disease goes on, the more we learn about its causes and see its effects. Following are four common life choices that have been unreservedly linked to dementia and other forms of neurodegenerative disease.
Regular excessive consumption of alcohol changes the biology of the brain. This may be a result of oxidative stress on brain tissue and/or vitamin B1 and B12 deficiency, as these vitamins have been directly associated with supporting memory. B-vitamin deficiency is common in heavy drinkers, as alcohol interferes with its absorption. But alcohol isn’t all bad: there have been studies that show light-to-moderate drinking of alcohol may lower the risk of any form of dementia (2). The importance of balance can’t be over-emphasized.
“Heavy alcohol consumption has both immediate and long-term detrimental effects on the brain and neuropsychological functioning. Heavy drinking accelerates shrinkage, or atrophy, of the brain, which in turn is a critical determinant of neurodegenerative changes and cognitive decline in aging. The shrinkage of brain tissue seen in Alzheimer’s disease and alcoholism is shown in the figure.” (3).
Separate from the onset of dementia, the negative effects of excessive alcohol on the brain are reversible. Cutting back to no more than 1-2 small drinks a day before permanent damage occurs allows normal function to resume.
2. Smoking Tobacco
Smoking makes your brain shrink. A compound found in tobacco causes white blood cells to attack healthy cells in the central nervous system (and elsewhere). Smoking destroys the body in a holistic way:
“Smoking increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and stroke which are also underlying risk factors for dementia. Specifically, smoking increases total plasma homocysteine (an amino acid that synthesizes proteins) and high levels of homocysteine increase the risk of stroke and cognitive impairment. Smoking also accelerates atherosclerosis – the build-up of fatty substances leading to a narrowing of the blood vessels in the heart and brain – that can deprive brain cells of oxygen. Thirdly, smoking can cause oxidative stress, which arises from the body’s interaction with oxygen. Oxidative stress is separately implicated as a causal factor in Alzheimer’s disease and has an impact on the body’s ageing process.” (4).
There’s no better time to quit than before you begin to forget where you put your cigarettes.
3. Sleep Deprivation
Sounds too simple but good quality sleep is essential for optimal long-term brain function. Your brain does not rest during sleep but takes care of storing memories and cleaning house of toxins. If you don’t sleep enough on a regular basis, toxins can build up and harm the brain.
If you suffer from sleep apnea, your breathing patterns are irregular during sleep, preventing enough oxygen from getting to the brain. From one five-year study on the relationship between sleep apnea and dementia:
“Women who had breathing problems during sleep were more likely to have memory problems. More than 44 percent of the women with sleep apnea had dementia or mild cognitive impairment, compared to 31 percent of the women who did not have sleep-disordered breathing. The researchers controlled for factors like age, weight, educational level, smoking, medication use and medical conditions, and still the association between breathing problems during sleep and dementia persisted. One reason why sleep apnea may cause memory problems is that the condition is associated with low blood oxygen levels, which would reduce oxygen supply to the brain. The researchers found that those who had low oxygen levels during sleep were more likely to develop dementia.” (5).
Sleep apnea is treatable with CPAP—continuous positive airway pressure. With this modality, the sleeper wears a mask over the nose and mouth. Constant air pressure prevents the throat from compressing during sleep, ensuring the oxygen inhaled can be distributed throughout the body.
4. High Blood Pressure
Chronic hypertension has been definitively linked to dementia risk, especially for people between the ages of thirty and fifty (5). High blood pressure constricts arteries that deliver oxygenated blood to the brain and veins that carry “used” blood that normally contains beta amyloid proteins from the brain through the circulatory system for cleaning and elimination. What’s interesting to note is that the correlation between hypertension and dementia is inverse to age. It does make sense, however: arguably the most stressful time of life is the most productive and the groundwork for cognitive decline is laid twenty years before symptoms appear. If you’ve reached seventy years old and have no symptoms of dementia, elevated blood pressure won’t cause it at that point.
Making adjustments now can help you keep your marbles later in life.