Keeping sharp: Staying active, like residents Kathleen Halm (left) and Janet Concannon do tending to the salsa garden at Smith Village in the Beverly/Morgan Park community of Chicago, helps seniors minimize the risk of developing dementia. | Supplied photo
Updated: July 28, 2012 6:18AM
Age is the greatest risk factor for cognitive decline and related diseases including Alzheimer’s.
Since we have still not figured out how to stop the aging process, the experts say taking better care of oneself throughout life may be the best way to put off the onset of cognitive decline or at least minimize the impact.
“According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation, after the age 85 almost 47 percent of the population have Alzheimer’s disease,” said Diane Morgan, memory support coordinator for Smith Village in Chicago’s Beverly community.
The statistic is staggering. For those who do not contract full blown Alzheimer’s, the risk of the onset of some other form of dementia increases with every passing year.
“Probably the same things you can do for a healthy heart are the same things you can do for a healthy brain,” Morgan said, adding the healthier an individual is in general as they head into their later years, the better off they are positioned to deal with the onset of age-related conditions.
While genetics certainly has its role in diseases such as Alzheimer’s — for example if one or both of your parents have been diagnosed with the disease, you may be more at risk than the general population — there is some indication overall health plays a role as well.
Some of the risk factors for cognitive decline and dementia outside of genetics include hypertension or high blood pressure, elevated lipids or high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity and smoking. In the cases of hypertension and smoking particularly, it is known to affect the vascular supply or blood supply to the brain.
“If the brain doesn’t have an adequate blood supply, you are more at risk,” explained Rebecca Wojcik, a geriatric clinical specialist and member of the Governors State University physical therapy faculty. Wojcik added that by reducing the risk for any of these problems, there is growing evidence it will help reduce the risk for cognitive decline.
The key risk factor for cognitive decline and dementia is the one thing everybody has in common and no one can control: age.
“With Alzheimer’s, really the greatest risk factor is age,” Morgan said.
Life expectancies have climbed and as more and more people live well into their 80s and even 90s, the chances of succumbing to a disease such as Alzheimer’s or experiencing some type of cognitive decline is much greater.
“If you have a healthy lifestyle all the way along, the less chance you have of getting any kind of disease,” she said.
Morgan encourages people to practice healthy living long before they enter the age where they may need assisted living care. Eating correctly, including a low-fat diet with lots of vegetables, and routine exercise all contribute to a better quality of life in general for seniors as their enter their twilight years.
Exercising your brain is another key component to higher levels of cognitive functioning. Morgan suggests taking up activities that challenge the brain to help keep it sharp such as learning a new language, hobby or skill that forces your brain to adapt to new stimuli. Activities such as learning to read music or how to play an instrument, and tackling a crossword puzzle, word puzzle or even a traditional puzzle are other possibilities.
“Try anything that’s new to you. Switch things up,” she said.
“From my experience, if you are very isolative, it is not a good thing. Get out and be social with your friends,” Morgan said.
One of the challenges that arise with aging is a greater possibility for big life changes. Those changes, she said, may put a person at a higher risk for diminished cognitive function.
When an individual works every day there is a structure to their life. Life’s changes, such as retirement or loss of a spouse, can cause havoc on that structure, creating a higher risk of health problems in general.
While retirement is viewed by many as a time to just relax and enjoy life, keeping some sort of structure in your “golden years” can go a long way toward keeping your body and mind healthy. Morgan encourages individuals to incorporate structure into their retirement days by staying on some type of schedule that requires the individual to wake up, eat meals and do activities at the same time each day.
Spend some time volunteering, join a club or make time for a hobby to help form that structure.
“Anything to stimulate your mind as well as keep you social can help,” she said.
Physical activity is a critical component to not only improving your overall health but minimizing cognitive decline, Wojcik said. She encourages people of all ages to get active. Adults should engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week.
“There is more and more evidence coming out that breaking that exercise up into smaller increments can be useful so long as you hit the overall total,” Wojcik said.
She advises people not to get hooked on the term exercise, which for many has a negative connotation. Physical activity comes in many shapes and forms, so find something you like to do and have fun.
Yard work, playing with the grandchildren and even housework can all be moderate physical activity depending on the intensity in which you take on the tasks.
“Even if the person is in their upper 70s and lower 80s, increasing activity can slow the rate of cognitive decline. Not just brain games, physical activity is key at that point in life,” Wojcik said.