According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), dementia refers to impairment of the ability to think, remember, or make decisions, in a way that interferes with daily life. While dementia does not refer to one specific disease or condition, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, impacting approximately 6 million Americans.
While many people assume that dementia is a normal part of the aging process, it is not. Some memory impairment is normal with aging, such as misplacing common household items or forgetting a word or a name. However, many people live their entire lives without developing dementia. The experience of dementia also varies widely from person to person. Symptoms usually include some combination of difficulty with memory, concentration, judgment, problem-solving, reasoning, communication, and/or visual processing. This can manifest as getting lost in familiar places, forgetting key relationships, confusion, etc.
There are several risk factors for dementia, age being the most prominent. Those above the age of 65 are at greatest risk for developing dementia. Family history, poor heart health, and traumatic brain injury are also all risk factors for developing dementia. Not all risk factors are preventable, however, knowing your family health history as much as possible is important for understanding your personal risk. For example, if dementia runs in your family, avoiding high contact sports or other activities that are more likely to cause concussion may mitigate your risk of developing dementia. In addition, doing what you can to maintain good heart health such as exercising, avoiding smoking, reducing high blood pressure and high cholesterol may help as well. Most importantly, talking to your doctor about your specific family health history and risk factors is the best way to understand what you can do to prevent dementia.
Of course, maintaining your general health and wellbeing is key. Regardless of your current health conditions, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly can reduce your risk, in addition to being proactive about your overall wellness and seeing your doctor for regular checkups.
Staying mentally active and alert may also reduce your risk of developing dementia. Especially as you age, regularly engaging in mind-stimulating activities could be highly beneficial. For example, reading, doing puzzles, number games, or similar activities can maintain alertness. By engaging your capacity to think critically and problem solve, you may be less likely to develop symptoms of dementia. There are even apps and games that are designed for cognitive training that could keep you mentally sharp. Challenging your mind a little each day could go a long way, especially as you age and your daily life becomes less mentally demanding.
Similarly, staying engaged socially is important. It is common for people to disconnect from their social networks as they age, so making a point to keep socializing in your routine keeps the social components of your brain alert and active.