Aging is a natural part of life that can impact your body in many ways. Seniors can expect to experience drier skin, weaker muscles and poorer vision. Some forgetfulness is also normal, but dementia isn’t a natural part of aging. Dementia occurs when the brain is damaged by disease, whether that’s Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia or another form of cognitive impairment. Some seniors are more at risk of dementia than others. Understanding why can help you keep your brain healthy longer.
Understanding the Prevalence and Impact of Dementia on Seniors
The total number of people with dementia is increasing. Currently, around 7 million people have dementia in the United States, and that number is expected to climb to 9 million by 2030. This is largely impacted by the country’s aging population, as the prevalence of dementia is actually decreasing. Between 2011 and 2019, the proportion of people aged 70 and above with dementia decreased from 13% to 10%.
The World Health Organization reports that dementia is one of the leading causes of disability and dependence among seniors worldwide. It can cause depression, isolation and mood changes. Caregivers also have a poorer quality of life, with resentment, anxiety and depression common. A decrease in the rates of dementia can have a huge impact on the lives of seniors and their families.
Understanding Dementia Risk Factors
Dementia risk factors can be separated into two categories: non-modifiable and modifiable.
Non-modifiable risk factors are those that can’t be changed. The largest risk factor for dementia is age. A person’s risk of developing dementia roughly doubles every 5 years after the age of 65. However, you can’t change your age. Other non-modifiable risks include:
- Ethnicity (incidence rates are higher for Black and Hispanic populations)
- Exposure to pollutants
Modifiable risks are those that you have some control over. Research has found that around 40% of dementia cases worldwide are caused by modifiable risk factors. They include:
- High alcohol use
- Use of opioids, marijuana and other drugs
- Low levels of physical activity
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
Making lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, exercising regularly and wearing a helmet when there’s a risk of head injury, could prevent or delay the onset of dementia.
Certain diseases are also a risk factor for dementia. This includes physical conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, as well as mental health illnesses like depression. Although not all of these conditions are preventable, taking steps to control them can help lower dementia risk.
The Role of Cognitive Reserve in Dementia
Another modifiable risk factor in dementia is cognitive reserve. This is the technical name for “brain health” or “brain fitness.” Cognitive reserve is a person’s ability to cope with diseases in the brain. A larger cognitive reserve means dementia symptoms take longer to show up.
Causes of a smaller cognitive reserve include leaving education early, a job with less complexity and social isolation. A strong reserve is built up during childhood and early adulthood but can be increased later in life by staying mentally and socially active.
Loneliness and social isolation are of particular concern as dementia risks. Loneliness is feeling alone, while social isolation is when someone doesn’t have social connections. Studies have found that nearly a quarter of seniors are socially isolated, which can lead to loneliness. Lonely Americans are three times as likely to develop dementia and show signs of neurocognitive decline.
The Importance of Early Detection and Prevention of Dementia in Seniors
It’s estimated that dementia costs the U.S. economy more than $300 billion each year. But the biggest impacts are felt on a personal level. Preventing or delaying the onset of dementia could reduce the number of people living with the disease by 20%. This leads to better mental and physical health for both seniors and their families.
Early detection can also have a beneficial effect on the way people experience the condition.
- Reduces stress: You have a definite answer about why symptoms have been occurring.
- Allows for planning: You can make your own decisions about finances, legal matters and future care.
- Access to treatments: Medications that slow cognitive decline or lessen symptoms are best started early.
- Lifestyle changes: You can prioritize a healthy lifestyle that may help preserve cognitive function.
- Clinical trials: You may be able to join clinical trials to help find better treatments for the condition.
- Focus on what’s important: You can choose to stop working, travel or pursue your life goals in the early stage of the disease.
- Get support: You can join support groups and get help from peers to adjust to a diagnosis.
Evidence suggests that people who receive an early diagnosis stay living independently for a longer period of time.
Strategies for Managing and Reducing the Risk of Dementia in Seniors
Common steps for healthy aging also keep the brain healthy. This decreases dementia risk and can delay the onset of dementia for those who do develop it. Here are a few great strategies.
Eat a Healthy Diet
There’s no single ingredient or food that decreases the risk of dementia, but a balanced diet can reduce risk. It ensures your brain gets all the nutrients it needs to stay healthy.
Physical activity is good for your body and mind. A combination of both aerobic and strength-building activities keep your heart and blood circulation healthy. It also reduces the risk of diabetes, which is a dementia risk.
Control Health Conditions
Follow your doctor’s instructions regarding medications and lifestyle changes. Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are all dementia risk factors. Getting these conditions under control reduces risk.
Stay Mentally Active
Mental activities help build your cognitive reserve. You should regularly do things that challenge your brain. This can include crosswords and puzzles, arts and crafts, learning new skills and reading books.
Stay Socially Active
Having a conversation exercises mental skills like communication, active listening, empathy and memory. Joining social groups, staying in touch with friends and volunteering are all ways to remain socially connected.
Avoid Alcohol and Tobacco
Smoking impacts the circulation of blood around your brain, while excess alcohol can change the way your brain works. Getting help to quit these habits can have a big impact on your brain health.