Dementia: One of the worst parts of growing old. So, it definitely pays to understand exactly what it is, how it develops and how it might be mitigated.
That our bodies won’t stay as strong and fast as we become old is a sobering thought. That our minds won’t stay as bright and sharp as we become old is a scary thought.
Of all the consequences of growing old, perhaps the most dreaded is dementia—the loss of cognitive functioning, from thinking and remembering to even reasoning—and the loss of behavioral abilities. And this fear is not without reason. The idea that an easy-going, friendly young gentleman can turn into a cranky old man with less and less of his once-bright personality remaining each year is disheartening enough; the very real possibility that that same man can become incapable of remembering who his own spouse is or how to button up a shirt is downright horrifying.
But, as the saying goes, we tend to fear what we don’t understand. And while dementia is a real concern and that it can actually be devastating, it pays to have a better understanding of the condition, from what it actually is, the risk factors associated with it, how it develops all the way to whether it can be prevented or somehow cured. Let’s get started:
What It Is and What It Isn’t
As mentioned earlier, dementia is the progressive decline of cognitive functions that is more common in old people. The key takeaway here is “more common.” See, what’s most important to understand here is that dementia is not a normal part of aging. The aforementioned decline in cognitive function is defined as being “due to damage or disease in the brain beyond what might be expected from normal aging.”
Going by the numbers, dementia affects roughly 1 in 100 people in their 60s. When we look at people in their 80s, the number goes up to around 1 in 6. But it can actually develop earlier, with 1 in 1400 people aged 40-64 affected by the condition. It goes without saying that as life expectancy rises, so does the number of people who suffer from dementia.
So, if dementia is not simply due to aging, what causes it? The number one cause is Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, the cause for most cases of Alzheimer’s is still unknown. Other types of dementia based on its cause include vascular dementia (commonly caused by strokes), mixed dementia (due to a combination of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia) and Lewy body dementia (which notably affected the late Robin Williams).
“WHAT’S MOST IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND HERE IS THAT DEMENTIA IS NOT A NORMAL PART OF AGING”
The Y Factor
It should be noted that while there is no significant difference in the proportion of men and women who develop dementia, men tend to experience different symptoms or experience the same symptoms differently. Most notably, men with dementia are more likely to retain their memories. On the flip side, men with dementia were more likely to develop language and movement problems. Dementia symptoms also tend to progress more slowly in men and some genetic risk factors have been found to be less harmful to men. All that being said, there is still a lot that we don’t know about how dementia develops and progresses.
How Do We Know?
Concerned that you might be developing early symptoms of dementia? Or perhaps you know someone who might be at risk? Then definitely contact your doctor and mention your concerns. There are various tests that can be done to detect the onset of dementia or to ascertain if you might be suffering from something else affecting your cognitive functions (i.e., memory, attention, judgement, language and problem solving), which might be anything from depression or brain tumors to side effects of certain medicines or even vitamin deficiencies. Most importantly, some symptoms of dementia can be eased or reversed, and the sooner the better.
What Can We Do
Can we reduce the risk of dementia? Yes, to a certain extent. It should be noted, however, that there are no surefire anti-dementia measures and it all boils down to living a healthy lifestyle. So, basically it’s the usual “maintain a balanced diet, exercise regularly, don’t smoke, watch your blood pressure and don’t drink too much” combo. Surprisingly—or perhaps not—there is evidence that people who are less socially active have a greater risk of dementia. So, yes, the power of friendship is quite real.
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