A slightly fading memory is not unusual as you grow older, but dementia is so much more than that. It’s not a normal part of aging.
There are some things you can do to lower your risk of developing dementia, or at least slow it down. But because some causes are outside your control, you can’t totally prevent it.
Let’s take a closer look at some causes of dementia and what you can do right now to start reducing your risk.
Dementia is a blanket term for chronic, progressive loss of mental function. It’s not a disease, but a group of symptoms with various causes. There are two main categories for dementia, Alzheimer and non-Alzheimer.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. Dementia of Alzheimer’s disease involves memory loss, plus impairment of other functions of the brain such as:
Non-Alzheimer dementias have to do with frontotemporal lobar degenerations, with two main types. One type mostly affects speech. The other type involves:
- behavioral changes
- personality changes
- lack of emotion
- loss of social filter
- trouble with organization and planning
In these non-Alzheimer’s dementias, memory loss appears later in disease progression. The second most common cause is vascular dementia. Some other non-Alzheimer’s dementias are:
Mixed dementia is when there are multiple causes. For example, a person with Alzheimer’s disease who also has vascular dementia has mixed dementia.
Some types of dementia are due to things beyond your control. But there are some things you can do to lower your risk of developing dementia and maintaining overall good health.
Regular physical activity can help reduce the risk of dementia. A
Another 2019 study revealed that active older adults tend to hold on to cognitive abilities better than those who are less active. This was the case even for participants who had brain lesions or biomarkers linked to dementia.
Regular exercise is also good for weight control, circulation, heart health, and mood, all of which could affect your dementia risk.
If you have a serious health condition, talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise regimen. And if you haven’t exercised in a while, start small, maybe just 15 minutes a day. Choose easy exercises and build up from there. Work your way up to:
- 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobics, such as brisk walking, or
- 75 minutes a week of more intense activity, such as jogging
Twice a week, add some resistance activities to work your muscles, such as push-ups, sit-ups, or lifting weights.
Some sports, like tennis, can provide resistance training and aerobics at the same time. Find something you enjoy and have fun with it.
Try not to spend too much time sitting or lying down during the day. Make movement a priority every day.
A diet that’s good for the heart is good for the brain and overall health. A healthy diet may reduce your risk of conditions that can lead to dementia. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a balanced diet consists of:
- fruit and vegetables
- lentils and beans
- grains, tubers, or roots
- eggs, milk, fish, lean meat
Things to avoid or keep to a minimum are:
- saturated fats
- animal fats
Your diet should center around nutrient-rich, whole foods. Avoid high-calorie, processed foods that provide little to no nutritional value.
If you smoke, but find it hard to quit, talk to your doctor about smoking cessation programs.
Go easy on alcohol
One drink is equal to .6 ounces of pure alcohol. That translates into:
- 12 ounces of beer with 5 percent alcohol
- 5 ounces of wine with 12 percent alcohol
- 1.5 ounces of 80 proof distilled spirits with 40 percent alcohol
Keep your mind active
An active mind may help lower the risk of dementia, so keep challenging yourself. Some examples would be:
- study something new, like a new language
- do puzzles and play games
- read challenging books
- learn to read music, take up an instrument, or start writing
- stay socially engaged: keep in touch with others or join group activities
Manage overall health
Staying in good shape can help lower risk of dementia, so get a yearly physical. See your doctor if you have symptoms of:
- hearing loss
- sleep problems
Manage existing health conditions such as:
- heart disease
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
The risk of developing dementia rises with age. About
Conditions that can increase the risk of dementia include:
- Down syndrome
- hearing loss
- Huntington’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- mini-strokes, vascular disorders
Contributing factors may include:
- long-term alcohol or drug use
- poor diet
- repeated blows to the head
- sedentary lifestyle
Dementia is a group of symptoms involving memory, reasoning, thinking, mood, personality, and behavior. Some early signs are:
- repeating things
- misplacing things
- confusion about dates and times
- trouble finding the right words
- changes in mood or behavior
- changes in interests
Later signs may include:
- worsening memory problems
- trouble carrying on a conversation
- trouble completing simple tasks such as paying bills or working a phone
- neglecting personal hygiene
- poor balance, falling
- inability to problem solve
- changes in sleeping patterns
- frustration, agitation, confusion, disorientation
- anxiety, sadness, depression
Memory loss doesn’t always mean dementia. What initially looks like dementia could turn out to be a symptom of a treatable condition, such as:
- vitamin deficiency
- medication side effects
- abnormal thyroid function
- normal pressure hydrocephalus
Diagnosing dementia and its cause is difficult. There’s no single test to diagnose it. Some types of dementia can’t be confirmed until after death.
If you have signs and symptoms of dementia, your doctor will probably start with your medical history, including:
- family history of dementia
- specific symptoms and when they started
- other diagnosed conditions
Your physical exam will likely include checking:
- blood pressure
- hormone, vitamin, and other blood tests
- balance assessment
- sensory response
Depending on results, your primary care doctor may refer you to a neurologist for further evaluation. Cognitive and neuropsychological tests may be used to assess:
- problem solving
- language skills
- math skills
Your doctor may also order:
- brain imaging tests
- genetic tests
- psychiatric evaluation
A decline in mental functioning that interferes with everyday tasks may be diagnosed as dementia. Lab tests and brain imaging can help exclude or confirm certain diseases as the cause.
Finding help for dementia
If you, or someone you care about has dementia, the following organizations can help or refer you to services.
- Alzheimer’s Association: Free, confidential helpline: 800-272-3900
- Lewy Body Dementia Association: Lewy Line for families and caregivers: 800-539-9767
- National Alliance for Caregiving
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Medicines for Alzheimer’s disease include:
- cholinesterase inhibitors: donepezil (Aricept), rivastigmine (Exelon), and galantamine (Razadyne)
- NMDA receptor antagonist: memantine (Namenda)
These drugs can help improve memory function. They may slow progression of Alzheimer’s disease, but they don’t stop it. These drugs can also be prescribed for other dementias, such as Parkinson’s disease, Lewy body dementia, and vascular dementia.
Your doctor can also prescribe medications for other symptoms, such as:
- sleep disturbances
Occupational therapy can help with such things as:
- coping mechanisms
- safer behaviors
- behavior management
- breaking tasks into easier steps
Some types of dementia can be effectively treated and reversed, particularly those caused by:
- B-12 deficiency and other metabolic disorders
- buildup of cerebral spinal fluid in the brain (normal pressure hydrocephalus)
- drug or alcohol use
- subdural hematoma following a head injury
- tumors that can be surgically removed
Most types of dementia are not reversible or curable, but they’re still treatable. These include those caused by:
- AIDS dementia complex
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- vascular dementia
Your prognosis depends on many factors, such as:
- cause of dementia
- response to treatment
- age and overall health
Your doctor can help you understand more about your individual outlook.
Dementia is a group of symptoms affecting memory and other cognitive functions. The top cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, followed by vascular dementia.
Some types of dementia are due to things you can’t change. But lifestyle choices that include regular exercise, a balanced diet, and mental engagement can help lower your risk of developing dementia.