Yes, You Do Have the Power to Ward off Dementia
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This article originally appeared at The Tyee and is reprinted here with their permission.
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[Editor's note: Science writer Jude Isabella recently attended the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference in Chicago, and her dispatches are running on The Tyee this week. Stay tuned for more.]
To live a dementia-free life, exercise, have at least one friend, live an interesting life, don't fret, and bring your library books back on time.
Well, it's not so much about bringing the books back on time as showing conscientiousness, and conscientiousness is good for your brain. Although if you're neurotic and fret about bringing your books back on time, that's probably bad for your brain.
It's a complex road to resilient aging, and what each of us wants to know is the key to growing old without losing too many marbles. "It's not likely to reside in any one elixir," said Elizabeth Stine-Morrow, a psychologist at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "There's a lot of snake oil out there."
That whole idea of brushing your teeth with your left hand if you're right-handed? And vice versa? There's no evidence that increases cognition. You can, however, drink in moderation, maybe even smoke, and have fun (with other people). Phew.
Brain health is a pressing public health concern. A century ago, four to five per cent of people in North America were over age 65. Now it's up to one-fifth of the population in some areas. (In 2011, the proportion of seniors in Canada was among the lowest of the G8 countries.)
No matter how hard they try, at least when it comes to brain health, Baby Boomers will never turn 70 into the new 20. But some of the most recent science behind resilient aging, presented at last weekend's American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Chicago, offers a few hopeful, practical suggestions for delaying dementia as long as possible.
Call in the reserves
So, where to start? First, build up your brain reserves, said Yaakov Stern from Columbia University.
"We know that specific changes in the brain that are responsible for Alzheimer's probably occur 20 or 30 years before someone experiences symptoms," Stern said. "Clinical symptoms appear later if you have more reserves, sooner if you have little reserves."
Brain reserves accumulate over a lifetime of experiences, and there are a few ways to boost them. It's good to get an education earlier in life, for example. Low levels of education double the risk of Alzheimer's.
"It's not that education prevents Alzheimer's, but it allows people to cope with the dementia process better and for longer before they succumb," Stern said.
Stern's results come from the Washington Heights-Inwood Columbia Aging Project (WHICAP). The effects of formal education are the easiest to measure, but Stern said other, informal education is probably equally as effective in warding off symptoms.
The other two ways to build reserves are through your mid-life occupation and your leisure activities later in life. If you spend eight hours a day sorting coatroom checks in a factory (one of my winter break jobs while at university), you're likely not building up brain reserves. As for leisure, people who engaged in more relaxing, fun activities later in life had half the risk of Alzheimer's.
Even though everyone's brain shrinks as they age, people with higher reserves tolerate volume loss, Stern concluded. "I think that people with reserves have more efficient networks, more resilient networks, [and] alternative ways of doing tasks to allow them to function," he said.