When we think of getting older, we often think of a decline in our physical health. However, old age can also signal a decline in our cognitive abilities.
A new study suggests that the latter is a growing problem, with research indicating one in 10 Americans ages 65 or older has dementia, a condition characterized by memory loss and confusion.
The nationally representative study of 3,500 older adults also found that 22% of those over 65 were found to have mild cognitive impairment.
While dementia rates were similar across the sexes, they varied by race, ethnicity, education, and age.
Between 2016 and 2017, participants were required to undergo neuropsychological tests and reviews. Rates of dementia were shown to rise with age, starting with 3% of people between 65 and 69 and jumping to 35% for those 90 or over.
In a statement, Jennifer Manly, PhD, one of the researchers involved with the study, said, “With increasing longevity and the aging of the Baby Boom generation, cognitive impairment is projected to increase significantly over the next few decades, affecting individuals, families, and programs that provide care and services for people with dementia.”
Maria Jones, a health professional and yoga teacher who works with older people and those living with dementia, says the findings are “slightly concerning” but “not surprising.”
She believes dementia rates are rising for a number of reasons, including the ability to diagnose more cases thanks to the increased use of diagnostic tools, such as CT scans for example, and increased awareness of the condition.
They may also be tied to the rise of other health concerns, such as increased levels of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stroke.
However, Jones says, there are many lifestyle factors at play too. She points to high inactivity levels, nutrient-poor diets (particularly those low in omega fatty acids), and the rise in obesity as contributing factors.
Rosie Whittington, director of the Me2U Centre, a leading dementia center in the UK, concurs.
“We are experiencing massive issues regarding lifestyle choices and the consequences of addiction, fast food, sugar, and processed food consumption, and a lack of exercise,” she surmises.
“Dementia is becoming more prevalent because of what we’re consuming and how we’re looking after our minds.”
Rising dementia cases may place significant pressure on caregivers, something that Jones believes nationally we aren’t ready for.
“Unless dementia training becomes the norm and carers are given the tools to deal adequately with people living with dementia, people will struggle to receive the care they need as the disease progresses,” she says.
For Jones, the rising number of dementia cases signals a need for additional dementia-specific training in the caregiving industry.
“This must be accompanied with increased recognition of the caring profession, which often receives little to no recognition, and is still a low-paid, highly-skilled and highly demanding job to do,” she adds.
If you’re concerned about developing dementia, there are steps you can take to cut your risk.
Jones says one of the most simple things you can do is to try and get out into the daylight daily as it boosts vitamin D levels.
“Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to dementia,” she notes.
Where food is concerned, Jones recommends the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, and fatty fish.
A healthy diet should also be combined with an active lifestyle. In research, high intensity interval training, in particular, has been shown to have the greatest impact on memory performance. However, all activity counts.
Staying mentally active may also prove beneficial.
“Keep learning new things, which can improve cognitive reserve and delay the onset or progression of dementia,” Jones advises.
She also suggests socializing as much as you can.
“Opportunities to socialize and interact with others become less readily available as we age, but remaining sociable can contribute to better health outcomes in later life,” she points out.
In the long-term, Whittington believes focusing on prevention is key.
“To tackle this, we need to prioritize prevention and education, with a view of targeting children and young people,” she says.
“We need to educate young people on the long-term effects of the choices they make at a young age, be it drugs, alcohol, or smoking.”
Whittington says it’s also important to encourage young people to communicate openly about their physical and mental health.
“Often the older generations don’t want to talk about their feelings, and so if they’re experiencing memory issues, they’ll try to mask it and avoid talking about it,” she points out.“ But if we create a community where people feel that they can talk freely about their mental health, we can cultivate a change in society.”
While these new findings may seem bewildering or even frightening, Jones believes they can be used as a catalyst to change the way we see dementia and older people in general.
“It is a shame to see older people as less valuable to the community. Or to suggest that people living with dementia are senile,” she says.
“It’s easy to assume that there is nothing we can do about dementia, but there’s plenty we can do, from raising awareness, being involved in activities, and volunteering (if and when possible) to support communities of older adults.”
Jones says we need to change the conversation around dementia.
“It’s important that we talk about dementia more positively and become more tolerant to the challenges it brings in our lives because there is a chance that someone close to us will be diagnosed with dementia at some point in their lives,” she says.
Our experts continually monitor the health and wellness space, and we update our articles when new information becomes available.
Current Version
Oct 25, 2022
Victoria Stokes
Edited By
Jase Peeples
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