Spoiler alert: This column may save your life.
If nothing else, it could dramatically improve your quality of life as you march into old age.
Unless you are under the age of 45, the time to act is now and I am not kidding. My mom was so worried about losing her marbles she chose to end her life, shall we say, perhaps a bit early.
But by changing a few simple health habits relatively early on, recent studies show, it is possible to stave off cognitive impairment for so long you could die before you start losing your mind.
Apologies for being so blunt, but this is a big deal. According to the national Alzheimer’s Association, the disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. Yet only 16% of seniors receive regular cognitive checkups.
I had my third annual test a few days ago with the Orange County Vital Brain Aging Program. At the end of this column, I’ll share the results.
For now, I’ll just share it’s simple, easy and interesting.
First, let’s quickly review the latest news and tips for keeping our marbles.
Aging population skyrockets
The aging population in the U.S. is booming and it’s not just boomers.
The World War II generation may be dwindling, but more are moving into triple digit age than ever before. Back in the day, newspapers announced when someone reached the centennial mark. No more. It’s just not that unusual.
Jonathan Vespa, U.S. Census Bureau demographer, explains what’s next. “By 2035,” he says, “there will be 78 million people 65 years and older compared to 76.7 million under the age of 18.
“The aging of baby boomers means that within just a couple decades,” he points out, “older people are projected to outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history.”
Closer to home, the percentage of soaring seniors is even greater. In 2000, the percentage of people 65 and older in Orange County hovered at 9.5%. By next year, it is projected to be 14%.
“This rapid aging of the population is due to people living longer and also to the oldest of the baby boom generation turning 65 years old,” reports Dr. William Shankle of Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach.
At some point, even millennials will be directly affected.
U.S. Census estimates that the median age will increase from 38 today to 43 by 2060. And with great numbers comes great personal responsibility.
“Unless we manage our physical and cognitive health proactively,” Shankle warns, “there will be a greater need for caregiving services, health services and social support, as well as increased need for public funding for health-related services.”
In short, don’t assume you’ll be able to depend on the kindness of strangers. You’re your own boss.
Genes matter, but not so much
The good news is that this is a fortuitous time to master the art of aging.
Relatively low-cost genetic testing can determine if you carry the risk gene for Alzheimer’s, apolipoprotein E or APOE.
Other risks for cognitive impairment include depression, diabetes, heart disease, sleep disorders, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, smoking, advanced age and being a couch potato.
Note: Many of these risks can be altered by your own choices.
Perhaps even more encouraging is that a plethora of new studies shows that healthy habits can slow, stop, or even reverse the impact of cognitive impairment.
Only a few weeks ago at the annual Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles, for example, British researchers at the University of Exeter released one of the largest studies ever on the effects of dementia.
After studying nearly 200,000 individual cases for a decade, co-author Elżbieta Kuźma reported, “Our findings are exciting as they show that we can take action to try to offset our genetic risk for dementia.
“Sticking to a healthy lifestyle,” Kuźma said, “was associated with a reduced risk of dementia, regardless of the genetic risk.”
How important is it to make change? Consider that Orange County’s Vital Brain Aging Program found that 22% of participants had some level of cognitive impairment.
So, saddle up and control your future.
Exercising your brain
“Use it or lose it,” is the clarion call in the cognitive community. I’ll break down how to keep using it into six parts:
First, maintain a healthy diet, such as the so-called Mediterranean diet which includes fresh fruits and vegetables as well as grains.
Second, ensure you exercise regularly. The Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation reports that exercise can reduce chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 50%.
Shoot for about 30 minutes six days a week and be sure to include cardio and strength training as well as balance and coordination exercises.
Third, sleep at least eight hours a night. “Poor sleep,” Shankle points out, “can affect both your memory and mood, causing increased risk for cognitive impairment and depression.”
Fourth, learn to manage stress. Mind you, stress and all its tentacles is the number one killer in America.
Suggestions include being able to laugh at yourself, finding time to have fun and deep, abdominal breathing. Think of blowing out a candle.
Fifth, socialize. If that sounds silly, you probably already have a strong circle of friends. But many people don’t, especially as we age. Studies show that humans need meaningful social connections or we tend to wilt like wallflowers.
Sixth, never stop exploring and never stop learning.
My dad used to claim the brain is a muscle and the more you use it, the smarter you got. I disagreed, the brain is an organ, not a muscle. But Dad was actually on target.
Shankle shares that a Norwegian study found that not only could people be trained to better remember, the thickness of their brains in the areas involved increased.
“In the case of Alzheimer’s disease,” Shankle adds, “researchers suggest that mental exercise reduces the risk by up to 33%.”
For the third time in three years, I plop down in a chair, listen to an expert detail good memory behaviors and do my best to repeat a short list of words she recites. The cost is $45 and the test and follow-up recommendations take about 45 minutes.
I do pretty badly. Or so I think. But this isn’t an IQ test. It’s merely a way to gauge where one is on the cognitive scale.
I end up easily clearing the 50% hurdle which marks the difference between doing fine and a “we need to look into something.”
To my surprise, I even do better than my last two tests, one of which involved a chaotic time in my life.
Betsey Oliver, education programs coordinator for the Vital Brain Aging Program, smiles and reminds me that mood is just one of the many things that affects thinking.
It may seem strange to test for cognitive functioning. But when you think about all the physical tests we take, you realize memory assessment only makes sense.
After all, you can’t improve brain health if you can’t remember what you need to fix.
To view the original article please visit the Orange County Register.