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Forgetful? Or is it a sign of something more serious?

June is Brain Health Month

As I get older, I seem to be more forgetful. And it’s not just, “Where did I put my keys?” or “What did I go in here to get?” – it’s more than that. Sometimes, it is a word or a phrase that I can’t really put my finger on. Other times, I forget what I ate for lunch yesterday or even if I ate lunch at all. And then, there is the wondering if I already took my medication. The last one is the most frightening for me.

The events above often make me wonder if I may have early onset dementia. I know dementia and mental illness runs in my family. My dad had a bipolar disorder and dementia before he died. The latter was contributed to high blood sugar from uncontrolled Type II diabetes. He had a cousin who was developmentally delayed and another cousin with Down syndrome. (The National Institute of Health estimates that 50% or more of people with Down syndrome will develop dementia.) His maternal grandmother was also said to have been “senile,” which was the word of choice for dementia back in the 1930s and 40s. So, what is the connection between dementia and genetics?

First, I think it is important to define dementia. Dementia is, according to the National Institute of Aging, the loss of cognitive functioning—thinking, remembering and reasoning—and behavioral abilities to such an extent that it interferes with a person's daily life and activities. One of the most common and most well-known types of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. It is estimated by the Alzheimer’s Association, that in 2021, there are more than 6 million Americans (11.3%) over 65 living with Alzheimer’s. Dementia can also be a catch-all phrase for different diseases and conditions that cause short-term memory loss, mood changes and communication problems.

Now back to genetics. Experts at Harvard University believe both genetic factors (genes passed down from mom and dad) and changeable lifestyle choices (nutrition, smoking, physical activity and environment) play a role in the development of dementia. Risk factors for dementia include:

  • age – a person’s risk factor goes up significantly with advanced age;
  • genetics/family history – a number of inherited genes increase the risk; however, not all people with a family history have dementia, and others without a family history can have dementia;
  • lifestyle choices – smoking and consuming large amounts of alcohol significantly increases the risk of mental decline and dementia; and
  • nutritional choices – diets high in cholesterol and foods that contribute to high blood sugars appear to significantly increase a person's risk of dementia.

So, what can we do to decrease our risk for dementia? No, you cannot disown your third cousin on your mother’s side to decrease your risk. Your gene pool is your gene pool. However, you can lower your risk factors by making a few lifestyle and nutritional changes. New research conducted by The Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care, which was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in 2020, suggests that up to 40% of Alzheimer’s cases could potentially be prevented through healthy lifestyle modifications such as diet and exercise. According to the June edition of Extension’s Healthy LIVING while aging! newsletter, these few tips can help improve brain function and potentially decrease your risk for dementia:

  • eat more fruits and vegetables,
  • reduce saturated fats,
  • eat eggs in moderation,
  • eat more fish with Omega-3,
  • eat plenty of whole grains, and
  • pass on the salt and salty processed foods.

You should also get moving. There is strong evidence that suggests getting in shape keeps your memory sharp and lowers your risk for dementia. Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, tested what types of exercise might be most effective at increasing memory performance in 64 inactive men and women aged 60 and older. The study found that interval walking (alternating your pace – going slow and then fast) as opposed to moderate walking at a consistent pace, did the most to significantly improve memory. For more on interval walking, read AARP’s Ultimate Workout to Reverse the Effects of Aging.

Be assured that dementia is not a part of normal aging. Subtle changes in memory do occur naturally as a part of aging. Some of these changes will go unnoticed, others can be scary. Share your concerns with your doctor if you have questions, as there may be a health-related reason. Dementia-like symptoms, as outlined by the Mayo Clinic, may be related to infections, blood sugar, B-12 deficiency, medication side effects and other conditions. Consider a review of the medicines and supplements you take by visiting the Sanford Center for Aging’s Medication Therapy Management Program. Before we part, I want to leave you with a University resource and a few other tips for increasing brain health and slowing memory decline.

Natalie Mazzullo photo
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