How Not To Become Demented

What weird quirk of human nature makes us more excited about a cure than prevention?  Imagine the headlines:  “Cure for Dementia!”  Wouldn’t you want to be one of the lucky ones to have bought stock in that company?

I have a friend who’s a dental hygienist, and you couldn’t pay me to do her job: Nobody wants to go to the dentist, nobody wants to hear about all the things they’re not doing to protect their teeth and not get gum disease. 

Nobody wants to be preached at.  We all know we need to floss our teeth*, and brush twice a day.  It’s pretty simple.  But how many people don’t floss, except maybe right before they go to the dentist?  How many of us have lied through our teeth, so to speak, and vehemently denied doing this? 

Dude, all they have to do is start poking around in there, and when they see plaque and your gums bleed at the drop of a hat, they know.  How many of us say, “I hate going to the dentist,” and then pay big money to have fillings and root canals, or worse, to get bad teeth pulled and get dentures.

Well, it’s the same thing happening here, except instead of losing your teeth, you could lose your memory, and your ability to think right. 

This story appeared in the news last week.  It didn’t make nearly as big of a splash as I thought it should:  “Exercising in Mid-Life Prevents Dementia.” 

Prevents dementia!  If you’ve ever watched a loved one struggle with dementia or Alzheimer’s, you know that this is hell on all sides. 

But this! This is really wonderful news:  Some basic lifestyle choices can delay or even prevent this from happening. 

Can you imagine if some drug company had developed a magic pill, something you take in your 40s and 50s, that prevents dementia?  People would be saying, “Sign me up!”

exerciseThis is better than a pill.  Also, it’s free!  The good news from this story is that – like many things we’ve talked about in this blog – every little thing you do makes a difference.  You don’t even need to lift weights or buy a gym membership.  You get points for walking the dog.  Just keep moving!  Any activity is good! 

An Australian researcher, Cassandra Szoeke, Ph.D., and colleagues just published these findings in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.   They followed nearly 400 women, aged 45 to 55, for more than 20 years, and gave them periodic memory tests; the women learned 10 unrelated words, and then tried to remember them 30 minutes later.

The investigators looked at everything – diet, education, marital status, employment, children, smoking, mood, physical activity, Body Mass Index, blood pressure, cholesterol, hormone levels, etc.   Although younger age and better education (this goes with the “cognitive reservoir” that seems to protect against Alzheimer’s that we talked about in this post) were linked to a better baseline test, the one factor that proved most powerful in determining who didn’t get dementia was regular physical activity

Note: In these posts, I talked about weight loss and smoking, and exercise as a way of not dying of cancer.  This isn’t even about big-effort activity.  You don’t have to jog, or pump iron, or do some extreme sport to keep your brain working. 

According to Szoeke: “Regular exercise of any type, from walking the dog to mountain climbing, emerged as the Number One protective factor against memory loss.”  Also, she continues:  “The effect of exercise is cumulative.  How much and how often you do over the course of your life adds up.”

walkingEvery little bit helps.  What if you didn’t start at age 40?  That’s okay!  Even if you start at 50, “you can make up for lost time.”  I’m going to add my two cents here and say that at any age, doing something is better than nothing, and if you can do your brain a tiny favor every time you move around, then do it.  Don’t cop out and say, “Well, I’m too old to start now, I’m toast.”  No, you’re not.  Conversely, “I’m way younger than 40, I’ve got plenty of time,” is just a terrible attitude.  You’ve got an even better chance of making a difference in your lifetime health!  

After exercise, the other things that proved to be strong protectors against memory loss were having normal blood pressure and having a high level of “good” cholesterol. 

One neat thing about this study, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Alzheimer’s Association, is that a lot of studies of memory loss start over age 60.  This is because the risk of dementia doubles every five years over age 65. 

The other:  There’s no prescription here for what you do, how hard you work out or how fast you run or walk.  The researchers found that it didn’t matter what people did, just that they did something.  The key is just daily exercise.  Seven days a week. 

“Start now,” says Szoeke, because if you wait, you will disadvantage your health.” 

*Note:  It turns out that dentists have been recommending flossing for a century without having done scientific studies to prove that it works.  Oops.  However, flossing does make your gums stronger and healthier, and removes food that otherwise might remain stuck between your teeth indefinitely, so it is a good thing to do.

©Janet Farrar Worthington

Regular disclaimer: This is a blog. It is not an encyclopedia article or a research paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. If a relevant publication is involved in the story, I mention it. Otherwise, don’t look for a lot of citations, especially if I’m quoting from a medical professional.