Dementia rates in Americans over the age of 65 have declined a whopping 24% in the last two decades. So, what is the cause of this encouraging news?
Anyone who has seen a loved one who’s mentally robust and functioning normally decline into a state of dementia knows how devastating this condition can be. A person succumbing to the effects of dementia will see memory loss, general confusion, and the loss of clear and quick thinking that they were used to when they were younger. The most famous and most sinister form of dementia is Alzheimer’s Disease, a condition that can leave the afflicted unable to recognize loved ones that they’ve known for decades. Alzheimer’s is caused (we think) by a buildup of plaque in the brain, clogging and disrupting healthy brain function. Another insidious form of dementia is vascular dementia, which usually manifests after a stroke.
As you might expect, dementia-related disorders are extremely hard on both the afflicted person as well as their family and friends. This makes dementia one of the great public health crises of our time, and researchers have been toiling as hard as they can to make progress against these diseases over the last several years. Encouragingly, a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association has found dementia rates to have declined to pre-2000 levels. It seems that, although we have not eliminated this scourge, we are making progress. So, what seems to be the cause of our improving outcomes involving dementia?
Although scientists and doctors are still working toward a complete understanding of how dementia works, we are beginning to truly understand the things that correlate with a more positive outcome when it comes to dementia. Two things seem to make the biggest difference: heart health and education levels/brain activity. In our technologically inter-connected world where information is at our fingertips and people are more aware of the importance of taking care of themselves, it appears that they are doing so — potentially leading to these declining dementia rates.
In terms of education and an active mind, researchers have had a pretty good idea for a few years now that these things are good predictors of someone who is better able to avoid or fight against dementia. Dementia is most prone to set in on the minds of people who lack things such as mental stimulation, opportunities for new and vibrant experiences, or intellectually stimulating tasks. There seems to be a correlation between keeping mentally active and warding off dementia, even simply by doing things such as difficult crossword puzzles or trying to learn a new language. Of course, this poses another problem: the widening gap in health outcomes based on a person’s socioeconomic status. Not everyone will be able to afford (or be exposed to) the types of mentally and intellectually stimulating situations that can ward off dementia, and we can expect to be dealing with that reality for some time still.
The other factor that seems to be a more recent revelation is the link between heart health and mind health. As mentioned earlier, vascular dementia is the direct result of a stroke, and if your heart is healthy you are much less likely to have that particular event happen to you. Furthermore, people who tend to exercise and take care of themselves typically are in better shape, think more critically about what they do with their bodies, and thus are more likely to also engage in critical thinking and the types of mental processes that stave off dementia. It appears to be a cyclical, self-perpetuating cycle of positive health: both mentally and physically.
Each week, Urgent 9 founder Dr. Manuel Momjian will personally weigh in on the topics covered by the blog.
Dementia unfortunately is one of those medical diagnoses that can be devastating not only for a patient, but also for a patient’s family. Patients with dementia can go from high functioning to requiring assistance with every aspect of daily living. Unfortunately, treatments for dementia have not been very good, so any positive news regarding this disease process is welcome.
The idea that aging Baby Boomers are less likely to get dementia — because many of them are more educated and follow basic principles of heart health — is an interesting and welcoming observation. So, more reason to continue physical exercise, a healthy diet, and weight loss. However, we should also take this moment to reinforce another important health recommendation that is not usually talked about by the medical community. Get an education, and continue to exercise your brain to promote both longevity and quality of life.
— Dr. Momjian