Dementia is a major crisis for the elderly and their caregivers. There are presently more than 35 million people around the world with dementia according to Alzheimer's Disease International. With the aging of the population, that figure is expected to reach over 115 million by 2050. Needless to say, any news about ways to potentially protect ourselves from dementia is good news, and the latest finding is surprisingly simple: start socializing.
In a study conducted at Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago, researchers found that regular social interactions can keep dementia at bay.1 Visiting with friends or relatives, enjoying a weekly bingo game, and attending religious services all seem to work equally well when it comes to engaging your mind socially.
The participants were 1,138 seniors with an average age of 80. All of them were part of the Rush Memory and Aging Project, a long-term study concerned with various aspects of aging. The volunteers, all of whom showed no degree of cognition problems at the start of the trial, were given neuropsychological tests and updated medical histories each year. This included a questionnaire on how frequently in the previous year the subject socialized with others in any capacity from volunteering to attending sporting events and from eating in restaurants to taking trips.
The researchers performed 19 different tests on the participants to evaluate their cognitive abilities. They assessed the perceptual speed (which is the ability to compare letters, numbers, objects, pictures, or patterns) and visuospatial ability (the ability to estimate distances, volumes, and areas) of each subject. They also focused on a range of memory tasks, analyzing their episodic memory (which involves autobiographic events and their contexts), semantic memory (understanding meanings and concept-based knowledge), and working memory (the ability to actively hold information and use it to reason, comprehend, and learn).
After an average of five years into the study, differences became apparent between the socially engaged and the more isolated volunteers. Those in the 90th percentile of social activity levels presented with just one quarter of the cognitive decline experienced by their counterparts who were the least sociable.
This huge disparity is especially significant in light of the enormous numbers of people affected by dementia throughout the world. And those are just the ones who have been diagnosed. A 2008 study at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina,2 found that approximately 22 percent of all those over age 71 who were tested showed symptoms of mental decline. The subjects did not have full-blown dementia, but they did have difficulty remembering things, making decisions, and communicating. Add to that number all of the seniors who either have fully developed dementia or Alzheimer's, and you end up with a figure of at least 34 percent of the aged population that suffers from mental deterioration.
Since projections suggest that those with Alzheimer's will triple by 2050, any findings that give us tools for the prevention of, or at least delaying of, dementia are extremely welcome. Getting out there and socializing seems to be just as good for the brain as doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku.3 So all of these should be a part of our cognitive arsenal as we age.
But there is also a health-related component to developing dementia that shouldn't be overlooked. Heart problems are among the leading causes of Alzheimer's; so lowering blood pressure and cholesterol appears to help stave off mental decline. Diabetes also has been implicated in the development of mental deterioration. Studies show that those with type 2 diabetes -- the type related to obesity -- are more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's. In fact, one study showed that borderline diabetics had a 70 percent increased risk of developing Alzheimer's, with even higher risk among those who also had high blood pressure.
And abdominal fat has turned out to be a surprising predictor of future mental decline -- separate from overall weight. People who have large midsections in their 40s are much more likely to end up with dementia in their 70s according to a 2008 study from Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, California. Those who had the most expansive midsections faced more than twice the risk of showing signs of senility as they aged as the leanest.
Keeping your brain healthy in later years obviously requires a multi-pronged attack. Stay active and fit and watch your diet. Incorporate a good full spectrum antioxidant into your daily health regimen, and be sure to use an L-carnosine based formula to protect your brain from the build-up of amyloid plaque, which is strongly linked to Alzheimer's. Also keep mentally challenged through games and puzzles, and get out and socialize as often as you can. Together, these may be the keys to a long life of mental acuity.
1 James, Bryan D.; Wilson, Robert S.; Barnes, Lisa L.; Bennett, David A. "Late-Life Social Activity and Cognitive Decline in Old Age." Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. 8 April 2011. Cambridge University Press. 9 June 2011. <http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=8254348&fulltextType=MR&fileId=S1355617711000531>.
2 Plassman, Brenda; Langa, Kenneth M.; Fisher, Gwenith C; Heeringa, Steven C.; Weir, David R.; Ofstedal, Mary Beth; Burke, James R.; Hurd, Michael D.; Potter, Guy C.; Rodgers, Willard L.; Steffens, David C.; McArdle, John; Willis, Robert J. "One in Three People Over 70 Have Memory Impairment." DukeHealth.org. 17 March 2008. Duke University Health System. 10 June 2011. <http://www.dukehealth.org/health_library/news/10261>.
3 Unknown. "Staying Sharp: Can You Prevent Alzheimer's Disease." 8 Jan 2006. Time. 10 June 2011. < http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1147142-3,00.html >