Alzheimer’s and Dementia Prevention: Ageless Wisdom
By Pamela D. Wilson, MS, BS/BA, NCG, CSA
Alzheimer’s and dementia are concerning diagnoses that present opportunities for prevention at all ages for even older adults in their 90’s who do not have a diagnosis. Our brain and systems of the body work together like a computer program to ensure that the machine, we call our body, runs well.
Changes to the body’s programming—meaning diagnosis of chronic health diseases in middle age and age-related effects—results in a slowing down of our body machine. This slowing down may result in a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia.
If you knew ten or twenty years ago what you will learn today in this article about the importance of physical activity, how might you have changed the way cared for your body and mind? Initiating change is possible at any age. The information you learn today—if you choose—may change the rest of your life and be one component of preventing a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Cognitive impairment begins years before signs of dementia are noticed.
The Central Nervous System and the Brain
The central nervous system works with the brain that controls cognitive function, activity, and communication between brain cells. Leaning about how age-related change affect the central nervous system is important to prevent a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Early signs of dementia occur and go unnoticed for years. How familiar are you with the symptoms of dementia and memory loss? 50% of older adults with dementia are undiagnosed.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 1 in 10 Americans over the age of 65, 14% of people age 71, and 32% of persons over age 85 have Alzheimer’s Dementia. This means that 1 in 3 older adults die with some form of dementia. (1) The statistics are sobering.
The initial indications that dementia is present are both physical and cognitive. All changes begin in the brain. Vascular dementia results from chronic diseases related to the heart, kidneys, and circulatory system.
Walking and balance are affected by the central nervous system (CNS) that experiences breakdowns in persons with dementia. The brain and the spinal cord do not communicate as well; nor do nerves and muscles. The result of central nervous difficulties are problems with balance, walking, thinking, memory, depression, and sleeping. These are early signs of dementia.
Balance and Walking
According to Clinical Nursing Times, (2) “by the age of 90, brain mass decreases by around 11% compared with individuals in their 50’s.” Brain mass decreases, loss of neurons and gaps in communication between neurons negatively affect our physical and thought processes. One of the earliest signs of cognitive impairment is an inability to manage finances. Physical symptoms also materialize.
“Around 35% of people over age 70 have gait-related problems”. (2) Gait problems mean the physical ability to place one foot in front of the other and walk in an even and balanced manner. The brain and the central nervous system effect balance and the ability to walk.
Having good balance and walking frequently are complex functions managed by the central nervous system. Similar to balance and walking, thinking and memory skills rely on the central nervous system. Early difficulties with balance, walking, and gait may be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s or dementia.
A study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (3) confirms that “poorer physical performance was associated with greater risk of all-cause dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. Slow gait predicts cognitive impairment and dementia.”
Alzheimer’s and Dementia Prevention Through Positive Aging
I use the term positive aging to describe actions that we can all take any time in our life to ensure that as we age, we remain active, vital, and engage in life. As information in this article reports, maintaining a healthy central nervous system is an important component of positive aging. Physical activity is important to prevent a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia.
By maintaining skills supported by the central nervous system like balance and walking, we maintain important daily skills to prevent a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia. What actions are you taking daily to support your physical and brain health? How tempted are you to sit in front of a computer or television all day? What are you doing to engage your brain? Cognitive stimulation may prevent or delay cognitive impairment.
Are you going outside to take walks? Are you walking inside your home, apartment community, or a mall if the weather is poor? Are you a member of a recreation center or gym?
In addition to walking, balance is important to avoid falls and broken bones like wrist or hip fractures that can have a negative impact on physical abilities. If you don’t know where to start, first see your doctor to make certain there are no risks to exercise based on your health conditions. Inquire about a physical or occupational therapy evaluation.
Take the Next Step Toward Brain Fitness
After a visit with your doctor, plan to attend an exercise class in person at a fitness center, watch an online exercise video, participate in sit and be fit classes on television. Many fitness centers have trainers available who can show you strengthening exercises and how to use the equipment. Fitness centers offer day passes to allow you to try out classes and equipment to make certain the center is a good match for your needs.
Still undecided about taking the leap to join a fitness center, but interested in walking and balance? Here are two links that show simple balance exercises. The Mayo Clinic Healthy Lifestyle Balance Exercises (4) and Vanderbilt University’s Health Plus Wellness Balance Exercises. (5)
Exercise contributes positively to central nervous system skills of thinking and memory in a number of ways. Cardiac workouts increase blood circulation throughout the body and strengthen the lungs. Learning new exercises and how to use exercises equipment fires up the part of your brain that relates to gaining new knowledge versus using information already known.
And who knows, you might make a few friends at the fitness center. Socialization is a benefit of exercising with others that may prevent depression which is another risk factor for Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Take the first step today toward positive aging and Alzheimer’s and dementia prevention. You’ll be one step closer to purposefully planning to live an active and vital life in your later years. I
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(1) Alzheimer’s Association. “2018 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures,” Alzheimers Dement 2018. 14(3) 367-429. P 19. https://www.alz.org/media/Documents/facts-and-figures-2018-r.pdf
(2) Knight J. and Nigam Y. (2017) Anatomy and physiology of ageing 5: the nervous system. Nursing Times (online); 113.6, 55-58, https://www.nursingtimes.net/roles/older-people-0nurses/anatomy-and-physiology-of-ageing-5-the-nervous-system/7018342.article
(3) Bullain, S.S., et al., “Sound Body Sound Mind? Physical Performance and the Risk of Dementia in the Oldest-Old: the 90+ Study,” J Am Geriatr Soc 64:1408-1415, 2016. Doi: 10.1111/jgs.14224.
(4) Mayo Clinic, “Healthy Lifestyle Balance Exercises,” https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/multimedia/balance-exercises/sls-20076853?s=1
(5) Vanderbilt University Health Plus, https://www.vumc.org/health-wellness/files/health-wellness/public_files/hpBalance.pdf
© 2018 Pamela D. Wilson, All Rights Reserved.
Pamela D. Wilson, MS, BS/BA, CG, CSA, a National Certified Guardian, and Certified Senior Advisor, is a caregiving and elder care expert, advocate, and speaker. Pamela offers family caregivers programming and support to navigate the challenges of providing, navigating, and planning for care. She guides professionals practicing in estate planning, elder and probate law, and financial planning to create plans to address unexpected concerns identified in her past role as a professional fiduciary. Healthcare professionals are supported by Pamela’s expertise to increase responsiveness and sensitivity to the extensive range of care challenges faced by care recipients and caregivers.