Imagine this: You’re in a room with several objects on a table — pens, books, clothes. A family member or friend is standing right in front of you saying something directly to you, making eye contact and gesturing as part of the conversation but you can’t comprehend what the person is saying. The person leaves the room and you feel confused because you couldn’t hear what was said. All you could hear were the hundreds of thoughts crossing your mind. You feel disoriented.
You walk towards the table and reach for one of the books but somehow can’t completely feel the old, wrinkled texture of the cover that hugs the pages inside of it. As you place the book back on the table, you accidentally knock over some of the pens. You didn’t see them because your peripheral vision is impaired. The person that was talking to you before walks back in the room and asks, “have you folded the clothes yet like I had asked you to?” No. Because you weren’t aware of this. You saw the person’s lips move, but you didn’t understand what they were saying.
That’s what it can feel like to live with dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, dementia is a general term to refer to a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. Dementia is an overall term used to describe symptoms that have an impact on memory, performance of daily activities, communication abilities and all five senses. Although symptoms differ greatly from case to case, at least two of the following core mental functions must be greatly impaired in order to be considered dementia: memory; communication and language; ability to focus and pay attention; reasoning and judgement; and visual perception.
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Alzheimer’s disease, the sixth leading cause of death in the country, is the most common type of dementia, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of cases. In fact, an estimated 5.7 million Americans of all ages have Alzheimer’s. This number includes nearly 5.5 million people age 65 and older and about 200,000 individuals under age 65. Today, someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s every 65 seconds. By mid-century, statistics project this will change to every 33 seconds.
There are some risk factors you can’t change, like age and genetics. And while many dementias are progressive — meaning symptoms start out slowly and gradually get worse — research shows there are steps you can take for risk reduction and prevention.
Monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol: Your brain is sustained by one of your body’s richest networks of blood vessels. Something that damages blood vessels in your body can also harm blood vessels in your brain, depriving brain cells of vital food and oxygen. These changes can cause faster decline or make impairments more severe.
Manage or avoid diabetes and don’t smoke: You can help protect your brain as you would protect your heart. Take steps to keep your blood pressure and blood sugar within the recommended limits. And don’t smoke.
Be more mentally engaged in life: This includes mental and social activities. Mentally challenging activities — like learning a new skill or hobby — can have short and long-term benefits for your brain. Similarly, engaging socially is associated with reduced rates of disability, mortality and depression. There are countless ways to stay socially active. Think about joining a club, volunteering or getting involved in your community.
Take care of your diet: What you eat can affect brain health through its effect on heart health. Current evidence suggests that heart-healthy eating patterns, like the Mediterranean diet, may help protect the brain. This diet includes minor intake of red meat and a higher consumption of whole grains; fruits and vegetables; fish and shellfish; nuts; olive oil; and other healthy fats.
Be active: There are endless benefits of regular physical exercise, including lowering the risk for some types of dementia. Evidence shows exercise may directly benefit brain cells by increasing blood and oxygen flow to the brain.
Dementia is always a tough topic to talk about, especially as there aren’t any recent developments in diagnosis or treatment. However, there are ways you can help take care of your health or that of a loved one. If you think you or someone you care about is showing signs of dementia, contact your doctor. Early diagnosis gives you a higher chance to seek treatment and plan for your future.