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Age-Related Memory Loss Is Not Inevitable

Of all the things that worry us about getting older is the possibility of dementia. When you lose your memories, does that mean you lose your identity?

Unfortunately, it’s becoming more common. According to Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI), there were over 50 million people worldwide living with dementia in 2020. They project that number to nearly double every 20 years, reaching a total of 82 million in 2030 and 152 million by 2050.

In addition, more than five million Americans have Alzheimer’s dementia, 80 percent of which are age 75 and older. But our family practice doctors want you to know that dementia is not inevitable with age; there are steps you can take to forestall and even prevent it.

Understanding terms

First, you need to know that people of all ages can have dementia, which is defined as severe memory loss that interferes with daily life. Dementia can also affect behavior and thinking. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, dementia is not normal aging of the brain.

Next, the terms dementia and Alzheimer’s are not interchangeable. Experts believe that between 60-80 percent of people have Alzheimer’s disease, which is characterized by memory loss and trouble planning and performing familiar tasks.

Other types of dementia, which can look similar to Alzheimer’s, include:

  • vascular dementia caused by a stroke
  • Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB), which are types of proteins that affect nerve cell function
  • frontotemporal dementia in which the frontal or temporal brain lobes shrink
  • Parkinson’s disease dementia
  • Huntington’s disease

In addition, there are a number of conditions that can mimic dementia, including:

  • hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
  • normal pressure hydrocephalus (a neurological condition caused by the build-up of fluid in the brain)
  • urinary tract infections and other infections
  • hospital-acquired delirium
  • vitamin B12 deficiency
  • dehydration
  • some prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications

What doesn’t help

Although the supplement industry is making billions cashing in on our fear of dementia, there is little evidence that various dietary supplements will help stave off memory decline. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2017 charged one popular memory supplement that is heavily advertised on TV with fraud. But because it’s touted as a supplement, not a drug, it remains on the market, along with a host of other so-called memory boosters.

“The Alzheimer’s Association has serious concerns about people using dietary supplements as an alternative or in addition to physician-prescribed, FDA-approved therapies in an attempt to treat or prevent Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias,” the association’s science officer Maria Carillo told NBC News.

Other activities, which once offered hope, include playing brain games, using a computer, or doing crossword puzzles. These, however, haven’t shown the results in studies that their proponents suggested.

There is hope

The CDC reports that normal aging may mean slower brain processing speeds and more difficulty with multitasking, but routine memory, skills, and knowledge are stable and may even improve with age.

CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta likewise insists that dementia is not a given as we get older.

“Dementia is not a normal part of aging and older people are not doomed to forget things,” he says. “Typical age-related changes in the brain are not the same as changes that are caused by disease. The former can be slowed down and the latter can be avoided. According to the best available evidence, significant upgrades can be made to the brain within just 12 weeks.”

One approach he recommends is the SHARP dietary protocol. That is:

  • Slash sugar.
  • Hydrate.
  • Add more omega-3 fatty acids from cold-water fish, nuts, and seeds.
  • Reduce food portions.
  • Plan ahead for healthy eating.

The CDC reports that there is growing scientific evidence that healthy behaviors, which have been shown to prevent cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, can also reduce risk for memory loss.

Their eight-step program involves the following recommendations:

  • Quit smoking.
  • Maintain a healthy blood pressure level.
  • Manage cholesterol levels with exercise and, if needed, cholesterol medications.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Stay engaged in relationships and your community.
  • Manage blood sugar.
  • If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation (one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men).

In addition, a recent study found that just 10 minutes or more of vigorous exercise more than one day a week can reduce the risk of proceeding from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) to dementia by 18 percent.

Talk to us

“While many organs do wither and decline with age, the brain is different,” says Gupta, “and it is well within your reach to stay cognitively intact into old age.”

According to the CDC, more than half of people with memory loss have not talked to their healthcare provider. They recommend getting comfortable with starting a dialogue with your medical provider if you observe any changes in memory, an increase in confusion, or just if you have any questions.

We think that’s excellent advice. There are medications that can help, and we can also spot health issues that can contribute to memory impairment. But these are more treatable if caught and managed early.

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