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The number of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease is rising at a rapid rate, and is expected to more than double by 2050. But a deeper look shows a more encouraging trend—the actual risk of seniors developing the disease is going down.
“The explosion is because we’ve got so many more 80-year-olds and 90-year-olds and 100-year-olds, but it’s not because your chances of developing dementia have gone up,” says Claudia Kawas, MD, a geriatric neurologist and founder of The 90+ Study at the University of California, Irvine. “An 80-year-old now is less likely to get dementia than 20 years ago,” she says. “That’s a pretty profound change to happen in just 20 years, effectively a generation.”
Several large studies have drawn such conclusions. One, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, looked at more than 20,000 people age 65 and older and found that incidence of dementia was 24 percent lower in 2012 than in 2000.
“There’s no drug to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, so if people now are lower risk than they were 20 years ago, to my mind, it’s almost exclusively been done by lifestyle,” says Kawas. Cardiologists have helped, she adds, because heart-healthy regimens also reduce dementia risk.
What’s the Difference Between Alzheimer’s and Dementia?
Dementia isn’t a disease, but a description of symptoms including loss of memory, ability to focus and reason, and other mental issues that can interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease, characterized by plaques that kill off brain cells, is considered the most common cause of dementia, but it isn’t fully understood. A study at Northwestern University in Chicago found that some people in their 90s, with widespread Alzheimer’s brain plaques, presented no symptoms and continued to have superior memory throughout their lives.
Strokes, Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions can also damage brain cells and produce dementia symptoms, but sometimes there is simply no known cause. The 90+ Study, which began in 2003 and has looked at more than 1,600 people in their 90s, has found that half of those with dementia have no known physical manifestations in their brains to explain the condition.
Did You Know?
Dementia isn’t a disease, but a description of symptoms, including memory loss.
What are Causes of Potentially Reversible Dementia?
Research has identified specific ways to reduce the odds of any type of dementia. In addition, there are treatable conditions that mimic Alzheimer’s and can even be misdiagnosed as the disease.
1. Lyme and Other Hidden Infections
“Lyme on the brain.” That’s how Dawn DeSylvia, MD, an integrative physician and founder of Whole Life Health MD in Los Angeles, describes dementia that stems from undiagnosed Lyme disease. Although known to be carried by ticks in the northeastern U.S., Lyme disease can be contracted from other sources in other areas, particularly the upper Midwest. The infection can linger for decades, triggering chronic inflammation. A healthy immune system can ward off noticeable signs but eventually gets overwhelmed, and debilitating dementia is one possible symptom. Epstein Barr, parasites, and other infections can also cause dementia. Testing for Lyme disease in a person with dementia who lives in the upper Midwest or Northeastern United States is reasonable.
“Toxins have been shown to kill brain cells,” says DeSylvia. And, she adds, they damage the lining of our gut, create inflammation, impair immune function, and disrupt hormones, all of which can contribute to brain fog or dementia.
Pesticides and herbicides are toxins that are fairly simple to avoid if you eat organic food. Mercury and other heavy metals may be culprits, especially if there has been occupational exposure earlier in life; they can be detoxified with the help of a competent health professional.
3. Undiagnosed Low Thyroid
A fairly common cause of brain fog, intense low thyroid symptoms can be diagnosed as dementia, and many doctors don’t test thoroughly enough to discover the cause. The conventional test, TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) often registers as normal even when thyroid hormone levels are below optimum. If you suspect low thyroid but are being told it’s “normal,” DeSylvia recommends getting additional tests: free and total T3 and T4, reverse T3 (different forms of thyroid hormone), and TPO (thyroperoxidase) antibodies. Thyroperoxidase is an enzyme involved in thyroid hormone production, and TPO antibodies can be a marker of autoimmune thyroid disease.
4. Dementia-Promoting Eating Habits
Diabetes is known to increase risk for dementia, but even slightly elevated blood sugar in healthy people increases risk. Insulin resistance, where blood glucose cannot be utilized for energy, is also linked to dementia. Foregoing high-starch, high-sugar foods and drinks can help prevent and reverse the condition.
5. Sleep Deprivation
We’ve all experienced the effects of too little sleep, from “zoning out” to forgetting things to difficulty focusing. And studies following more than 69,000 people show a link between too little sleep, or lack of restful sleep, and higher risk for dementia. Allowing enough time and, if necessary, taking supplements such as 5-HTP, melatonin, magnesium, or tart cherry juice, can help improve sleep.
6. Vitamin Deficiencies
Deficiencies of vitamins B1 and B12 are recognized as triggers of dementia symptoms. B1, depleted by alcohol and poorly absorbed by gluten-sensitive people, is essential for blood sugar to be used as energy in the brain, and a deficiency leads to the death of brain cells. B12, which becomes harder to absorb as people get older, is an essential component of myelin, a protective coating on brain cells. Deficiencies in vitamin B6 and folic acid can also contribute to dementia symptoms. All of these B vitamins can be found in B complex or multivitamin formulas, or as individual supplements.
7. Hearing Loss
Studies following a total of more than 16,000 older people (in the U.S., Britain, and France) found that hearing loss increases risk for dementia, and that correcting hearing problems stops or slows mental decline. “Relationships at home and work often suffer due to rising frustrations of not being able to communicate effectively,” says Leisa Lyles-DeLeon, AuD, a board-certified audiologist in Washington D.C. “This can lead to less communication attempts and feelings of isolation from partners and colleagues.” Today’s hearing aids are virtually invisible, and many work with smartphone apps.
8. Drug Side Effects
Some medications can cause dementia-like symptoms. Top offenders include drugs for depression, anxiety, heart conditions, Parkinson’s, and convulsions, as well as sedatives, narcotics, and corticosteroids. Check the potential side effects of any medication.
9. Physical Inactivity
Studies show that exercise can improve memory, speed up thinking, and improve focus. The latest guidelines from the American Academy of Neurology recommend brisk walking, jogging, or other activities that get your heart pumping, at least twice weekly, for a total of 150 minutes per week. Weight training, while necessary for preserving muscle, hasn’t been shown to protect against dementia.
Making a habit of spending time with friends, visiting relatives, and going to parties, restaurants, and other events lowers the odds of dementia, according to a study of more than 1,100 seniors with a mean age of 80 at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “Our findings suggest that social inactivity itself leads to cognitive impairments,” says lead researcher Bryan James, PhD. In other words, go out and have fun.
Kris Kristofferson’s Miraculous Recovery
The country music legend suffered years of debilitating memory loss and was
misdiagnosed with Alzheimer’s until one doctor tested for and discovered Lyme
disease. At age 80, after three weeks of treatment for Lyme, Kristofferson
miraculously recovered and, to the delight of his fans, is performing live concerts again.
Alzheimer’s Prevention Tips
A study at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that a personalized program, based on several dozen tests, could reverse dementia symptoms ranging from mild memory problems to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Of the 10 people in the study, six were either unable to work or had been struggling at their jobs, and all returned to work or significantly improved their performance. These were some of the key lifestyle steps:
- Eating a low-grain or gluten-free diet, low in starches and sugar, and replacing processed food, as much as possible, with more vegetables, fruits, and non-farmed fish.
- Fasting for a minimum of 12 hours between dinner and breakfast, and for a minimum of three hours between dinner and bedtime.
- Sleeping seven to eight hours per night.
- Taking supportive supplements, which varied among individuals and included methylcobalamin (B12), B1, vitamin D, fish oil, coenzyme Q10, curcumin, ashwagandha, coconut or MCT oil, and citicoline.
- Probiotics and prebiotics, where necessary, to repair gut health.
- Exercising for a minimum of 30 minutes, four to six days per week.
- Taking steps to reduce stress, with yoga or music, for example.
- Improving dental health, where necessary, to reduce gum inflammation.