It was a shocking, sad moment, the first time my mother forgot who I was.
Her dementia had been slowly but steadily increasing for years. I was losing her, mind first. It had happened to friends; now it was happening to me. Now it was more than statistics — it was brutally personal.
Dementia and Alzheimer's disease have swelled to epidemic proportions. Millions of us have it, millions more will get it, and its treatment may bankrupt us. The affliction is increasing relentlessly and the longer we live, the more likely we are to get it. The tidal wave of aging baby boomers threatens to drown us in a sea of forgetfulness. Scary stuff, if we believe that's the whole story.
There's more. In fact, there's actually some good news. Researchers have recently made a startling discovery — the rate of Alzheimer's and dementia is actually decreasing. That's according to a report in the Nov. 29, 2013, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. What happened? There's been no breakthrough medical discovery, no magic pill. Instead, scientists attribute this unexpected shift in a positive direction to the development and adoption of healthier lifestyles, increased levels of education and improved prevention of cardiovascular disease.
What does this good news mean to us? Apparently, we are not helpless victims waiting for Alzheimer's to attack and destroy our brains. Evidently, making lifestyle changes makes a real difference. When we improve our physical and mental health, our risk of developing dementia of any kind is greatly reduced. Now, that gets my attention.
We have some control. We can reduce our risk of becoming a dementia statistic. How? The "lifestyle" factors mentioned in this report and elsewhere are no mystery. They include a healthy diet, plenty of exercise, lifelong learning and active social engagement. While these may be simple and easy to understand, they are not necessarily that easy to implement. It means experimenting with new behaviors and making changes. Change of any kind can be challenging. So, let's make it simple.
- Diet. Eat lots of vegetables and fruits, olive oil, some fish, nuts, whole grains, and lesser amounts of red meat and dairy.
- Physical exercise. Any exercise is good, the more the better, and the more intense the better (within reason). Walk half an hour most days. Go to the gym. Find innovative ways to work your muscles and stay active.
- Mental exercise. It's essential to deliberately stimulate your mind, use your imagination and continue learning. It's great if you can retire, but don't retire your brain.
- Social life. It's vital to engage in life and remain socially active. Don't become a recluse. It's remarkable how beneficial interacting with other people is for preventing dementia. In fact, chronic isolation can devastate your health and be as invasively unhealthy as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
My mother is gone now and it grieves me that the good news about preventing Alzheimer's didn't surface in time to help her. But it can help me and it can help you. Let's live healthy enough now to age with grace and remember who our children are until we share our final goodbyes.
John Kalb is a chiropractic physician, wellness coach, educator and author. He is an adjunct faculty member at Southern Oregon University where he teaches at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and has run his chiropractic practice in Ashland for almost 30 years.
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