How to Reduce the Risk of Dementia

Columbia Icefield - the largest ice field in the Rocky Mountains. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Columbia Icefield - the largest ice field in the Rocky Mountains. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

Dementia is not a specific illness. It is a combination of symptoms that affect memory, thinking and social abilities. It reduces a person’s ability to perform everyday activities.

According to a report in the Lancet (Prevention of dementia by targeting risk factors – April 21, 2018), dementia epidemic is the greatest global challenge for health and social care in the 21st century.

There are a number of causes of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of a progressive dementia accounting for 60 to 80 per cent of dementia cases.

Over 747,000 Canadians are living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. Worldwide, at least 44 million people are living with dementia – more than the total population of Canada – making the disease a global health crisis that must be addressed. It affects about 14 per cent of Americans over age 71.

Alzheimer’s disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer. In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. Her symptoms included memory loss, language problems, and unpredictable behaviour.

Can we do anything about it?

Dementia involves damage of nerve cells in the brain, which can occur in several areas of the brain. Dementia affects people differently, depending on the area of the brain affected. Finding a cure for something like that is difficult.

In this new Lancet report, a team of international researchers identifies nine key risk factors that together account for about 35 percent of cases. Depending on the cause, some dementia symptoms can be reversed.

Following nine steps can reduce the risk of dementia, but researchers say they need to be undertaken over the course of one’s lifetime. Here is the summary:

1. Education. Having higher education helps. Keep learning new skills through out your life. Keep your brain active.

2. Hypertension. Dementia and high blood pressure are closely linked.

3. Obesity. Obesity is a key risk factor in mid-life. Previous report from the U.K. found that being underweight in mid-life was also associated with an increased risk of dementia. So maintain proper weight.

4. Hearing loss. Hearing loss affects nearly a third of people over 55. Hearing loss can lead to social disengagement, depression, or brain atrophy.

5. Smoking. Smoking has ill effect on cardiovascular health. Cigarette smoke also contains substances that are toxic to the brain.

6. Depression. There are definite links between depression and dementia.

7. Physical inactivity. Research has shown that older adults who exercise are more likely to maintain cognition than those who do not exercise. Studies have suggested tai chi, longer exercise sessions (at least 45 minutes at a time), and resistance training may all have particular benefits for the brain.

8. Social isolation. Loneliness and a lack of physical contact, especially later in life, are linked to dementia.

9. Diabetes. Diabetes is a potential risk for many of the same reasons as obesity.

Finally, keep your brain sharp by playing brain games. Eat healthy with fruits, vegetables and nuts. Exercise. Remember, what is good for the body is good for the brain. Dementia will compromise your lifestyle, put extra burden on your family and will compromise your longevity. Most studies seem to show that the average number of years someone will live with dementia after being diagnosed is around ten years.

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Death of Comedian Robin Williams and the Tragic Effect of Dementia

Maui, Hawaii (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Maui, Hawaii (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

Dementia is a general term for loss of memory and other mental abilities severe enough to interfere with daily life. It is caused by physical changes in the brain. There are at least 10 different types of dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia and accounts for an estimated 60 to 80 percent of cases.

Lewy body dementia is a progressive disease and is the second most common type of progressive dementia. It affects 1.4 million Americans.

Actor comedian Robin Williams, a man who entertained and made millions of people laugh, committed suicide on August 11, 2014. Questions were raised on the state of his mind and health at the time of his tragic death. At autopsy, the brain of Williams showed signs of diffuse Lewy body disease.

The Lewy Body Dementia Association website has a clarifying statement on the autopsy report on Williams. It goes on to explain the effect of Lewy body dementia.

Before his death, Williams had a clinical diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and received treatment for his symptoms. He also suffered from depression, anxiety and paranoia, which may occur in either Parkinson’s disease or dementia with Lewy bodies.

In the early 1900s, while researching Parkinson’s disease, the German-born American neurologist, Friederich H. Lewy, discovered abnormal protein deposits that disrupt the brain’s normal functions. Lewy body dementia exists either in pure form, or in conjunction with other brain changes, including those typically seen in Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Lewy body dementia is a progressive disease. It causes a decline in mental functions. There may be visual hallucinations, and changes in alertness and attention. They may have Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms such as rigid muscles, slow movement and tremors.

In early Parkinson’s disease, Lewy bodies are generally limited in distribution, but in dementia with Lewy bodies, the Lewy bodies are spread widely throughout the brain, as was the case with Williams.

To make a clinical diagnosis of dementia with Lewy bodies, a person must have significant problems with thinking and memory that interfere with everyday life. There was no mention in the media or in the autopsy report that Williams exhibited these symptoms. But it is not uncommon for early signs of dementia to go unnoticed.

Making diagnoses of Lewy body dementia is not easy because it is a complex disease that can present with a range of physical, cognitive, and behavioural symptoms. Symptoms that can closely resemble other more commonly known diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. That is why it is widely undiagnosed. It can dramatically affect not only the person diagnosed but also the primary caregiver – usually the family.

Early and accurate diagnosis of Lewy body dementia, while not always easy, is of critical importance for better management. If they are misdiagnosed to have Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease then they may react to medications differently. They need multidisciplinary treatment from different specialists.

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Regular Walking Prevents Memory Loss and Delays Alzheimer’s Disease

Sunset in Calgary, Alberta. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Sunset in Calgary, Alberta. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

There are many health benefits to regular walking. It helps your heart, lungs, joints and muscles. It may even regulate your bowel movements. You can add one more benefit to that list. According to a recent Australian study, regular walking is the best defense against age-related memory loss.

The researchers at the University of Melbourne followed 387 women for two decades. They found that participants who did some form of movement every day were less likely to suffer memory loss in their 60s and 70s, compared to their sedentary peers.

The article, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, shows that little physical effort like walking can go a long way in improving cognition in old age. Dementia is one condition that affects older individuals and affects their cognition.

Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. Dementia is not a specific disease. It’s an overall term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. Memory loss is an example. Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia. It accounts for 60 to 80 percent of cases.

The Australian researchers set out to find risk factors for dementia that could be changed. The study participants were between the ages of 45 and 55 when the study began in 1992. The researchers tested their cognitive abilities at the outset to get a baseline measure.

In the study, regular physical activity had the most protective effect on short-term memory. But aerobic exercise – the kind that makes you breathe heavily – proved less important than frequency of movement. If a person walked more then the benefit was greater.

Researchers concluded that physical activity has a direct relationship with cognition, over and above any influence on weight and cholesterol. The idea is to move more and move often. If you have difficulty walking then take up swimming or other activity that will keep you moving.

A study published in 2014 says if you take your brain for a brisk walk three times a week then it delays dementia. Studies on men and women aged 60 to 80 found that taking a short walk three times a week increased the size of brain regions linked to planning and memory over the course of a year.

The results suggest that brain and cognitive function of the older adults remain plastic and highly malleable. We used to think that as you get older there is inevitable decline in your brain function. That is not true. Don’t give up on your brain.

Reports indicate there is a desperate need for any approach that could slow the rising epidemic of dementia. An estimated 44.4 million people now have dementia worldwide, and that number is expected to reach 75.6 million in 2030, according to figures from Alzheimer’s Disease International.

If you are able to walk then keep walking. If not then do some other physical activity that will keep your brain busy. Move more, move often.

Start reading the preview of my book A Doctor's Journey for free on Amazon. Available on Kindle for $2.99!