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To Your Health: Simple steps to take to protect your brain

Has this happened to you? I leave my desk to get something from the table in the living room. Once in the living room I stop cold. “What am I doing here? What was I looking for?” Briefly the thought flashes through my mind: dementia! My mind is slipping.

In fact, many people fear the onset of dementia as they grow older. A 2021 AARP research study found that among adults 40 and older, a full 48% believe they are likely to have dementia in their later years. Yet the actual rate of dementia among individuals age 71 and older is just 13.9%.

Many of the conditions that increase the risk of dementia are related to cardiovascular disease and other chronic health conditions.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), dementia is not an inevitable result of aging. It is true that as we grow older the brain’s abilities change. There will be subtle alterations in memory, thinking, and reasoning. For example, you may not remember where you put your car keys and grow very frustrated, yet still have the ability to think logically about where you might have put them. It’s annoying but not a sign of dementia.

It’s also important to remember that dementia is not a disease. Alzheimer’s, on the other hand, is a disease, incurable, and ultimately fatal. Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative disorder that attacks the brain and results in disorientation, with impaired memory, thinking, and judgment. Currently it is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.

There are specific actions that we can all take to reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in later years, according to the CDC. Many of the conditions that increase the risk of dementia are related to cardiovascular disease and other chronic health conditions. They include hypertension, not getting enough physical exercise, obesity, diabetes, depression, smoking, hearing loss, and binge drinking.

A 2022 CDC study examined how common these eight risk factors were among adults 45 years and older. The frequency of cognitive decline increased from 3.9% among adults with no risk factors to 25% among those with four or more risk factors. Furthermore, 50% of those participating in the study had high blood pressure or did not meet physical activity guidelines.

There is hope, however. Because dementia takes years to progress, changing certain behaviors now can offset or slow its development in future years. Maintaining healthy lifestyle habits could reduce your dementia risk.

Actions you can take  Be active and maintain a healthy weight — A 2020 National Institute on Aging study found that a Body Mass Index indicating overweight or obese is related to a higher risk of dementia. Regular physical activity is important for good health; and combined with a healthy diet can lead to a healthy weight.

Pay attention to your blood sugar — Your brain is sensitive to the amount of glucose (sugar) it receives. Both high and low blood sugar can damage blood vessels in the brain. In the same way that diabetes can cause nerve damage to eyes, feet, and hands, it can also affect the brain by harming nerves and blood vessels. This can lead to problems with memory and learning, mood shifts, and over time, other serious problems like Alzheimer’s disease.

Prevent and manage high blood pressure — Recent studies show that high blood pressure is linked to a higher risk for dementia. Evidence suggests that having uncontrolled high blood pressure during midlife (ages 44 to 66) creates a higher risk for dementia later in life, according to the CDC.

Prevent and correct hearing loss — If you have hearing loss, you have a greater chance of developing dementia, according to a 2020 report that lists hearing loss as one of the top risk factors for dementia. Hearing loss is estimated to account for 8% of dementia cases. This means that hearing loss may be responsible for 800,000 of the nearly 10 million new cases of dementia diagnosed each year, according to a John Hopkins University study. If hearing loss is a concern of yours, the Northeast Center offers an array of hearing protection and affordable prices for farmers, loggers and fishermen (https://necenter.org/safety-gear). Of course, stopping smoking and modifying binge drinking are also critical steps to reduce the risk of dementia.

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