Did you know nearly 5 million Americans are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease each year? According to the Alzheimer’s Association, roughly 7 percent of women and 9 percent of men who live to age 65 will receive a diagnosis of dementia before their death. To mark Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, Paula Neuman, EdD, PSYD, HSPP, tells us about the secret to preventing dementia and your best brain health.
Unless dementia risk is reduced, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that by 2050, the numbers of Americans with Alzheimer’s Disease will triple, exceeding 13 million. Although there have been steps toward understanding the genetics and environmental ties to dementia, a focus on health strategies beginning prior to birth that would likely improve the odds of prevention strategies, has not been a high priority in health care. The general public does not understand how their brains work or the importance of brain health as it relates to the cognitive aging process, and prevention of diseases like dementia.
Brain health actually begins before birth. The brain’s wiring is mostly completed in the first three years of life. Early education and opportunities for enrichment are associated with less cognitive decline later in life. Complex occupational opportunities in midlife (jobs that continue to require novelty and mental flexibility), appear to increase cognitive resilience. Prevention strategies to improve perinatal health, quality education for all, and access to quality and challenging employment opportunities are indeed overall ways to reduce the risk and ultimately the numbers of individuals who are eventually diagnosed with dementia.
Additionally, lifestyle changes, those focused on overall improvement of health, especially in the areas of diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and physical and cognitive inactivity could prevent 500,000 cases of dementia in the U.S. alone (Barnes & Yaffe, 2011) with a potential cost savings of approximately $25 billion to families, insurance and government.
Treatment and Managing Your Condition
Compliance with medications for already diagnosed conditions is only part of the solution. Diet, exercise, and behavioral changes, including behavioral therapy that help individuals develop long-lasting lifestyle changes, show the greatest results. A personalized treatment plan from a highly qualified team of medical and psychological members, is key. Cognitive-behavioral strategies that address depression and other mood disturbances are important interventions, as well.
Reducing cognitive decline by using cognitive stimulation (puzzles, reading, learning a second language) has shown success in human studies (Hultsch et al., 1999). Also, cognitive training programs that focus on improving central sensory system function is showing positive potential (Mahncke, Bronstone & Merzenich, 2006). For those who have begun to show mild cognitive impairment, secondary prevention such as cognitive rehabilitation though repetitive training or memory compensation techniques are promising.
Employer and insurance incentives, physician referrals to physical and mental health providers have been shown to reduce dementia risk. Increasing access to these evidence-based interventions must be a priority. A dramatic decrease in cognitive disorders of aging is possible, and within every person’s ability. I encourage you to start with a visit to your primary care provider or health psychologist to discuss a personalized plan that is practical and accountable, tailored to your cognitive health.