There are more than 5.5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s – a sobering statistic that has many middle-aged adults frightened about what their own future holds. But rather than sit back and wait for something to happen, there are actually proactive steps individuals can take to increase their chances of living a long and happy life.
The Difference Between Alzheimer’s and Dementia
In order to truly understand what it looks like to be proactive in the fight against this terrible illness, it’s imperative that you first have an understanding of what the disease is and how it relates to dementia – a condition that often gets used interchangeably with Alzheimer’s.
“Dementia is an umbrella term for a set of symptoms including impaired thinking and memory,” A Place For Mom explains. “It is a term that is often associated with the cognitive decline of aging. However, issues other than Alzheimer’s can cause dementia. Other common causes of dementia are Huntington’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.”
That being said, the CDC claims Alzheimer’s disease may cause as many as 50 to 70 percent of all dementia cases – making it the most common cause by far.
In essence, people who are diagnosed with dementia are being diagnosed with a set of symptoms. It’s like waking up one morning and having a headache, sore throat, and stuffy nose. Clearly there’s something wrong, but it could be the flu, allergies, a common cold, or something else entirely. When someone is diagnosed with dementia, the symptoms are being acknowledged, but the source remains a mystery.
On the other hand, an Alzheimer’s diagnosis provides a much clearer idea of what’s going on in the brain and how it’s affecting the individual. But unfortunately, Alzheimer’s – unlike some other forms of dementia – isn’t reversible. Once it starts, it’s incurable and degenerative – which is why proactive prevention is so important.
Being Proactive in the Fight Against Alzheimer’s
Since age is such a critical factor, Alzheimer’s can’t necessarily be prevented. You can, however, significantly lower your risk and slow the progression. It’s all about making smart choices and being prepared for any number of possible outcomes.
Proactive individuals should begin with the end in mind. This means thinking about future medical care and developing a plan for how to deal with Alzheimer’s, should it come into play down the road.
19 percent of Americans over the age of 65 will experience some sort of physical impairment that necessitates long-term care. Roughly 55 percent of Americans over the age of 85 require some degree of long-term care. Sadly, most Americans don’t have the financial means to pay for this. Or, if they do, it’ll deplete their life savings and leave the surviving partner with nothing.
The first step is to get some sort of long-term care insurance policy before the onset of symptoms. However, buying long-term care insurance isn’t going to lower your risk of Alzheimer’s. It simply helps you prepare for what could happen. If you want to lower your risk, there are some practical steps you can take to get ahead of this terrible disease. Some refer to these action steps as the “six pillars” of prevention.
- Regular Exercise
For a disease that involves the brain, most people assume that prevention is all about keeping the mind sharp through logic puzzles and reading, but it involves the entire body – particularly the heart.
“Several conditions known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease — such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol — also increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s,” Alz.org explains. “Some autopsy studies show that as many as 80 percent of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease also have cardiovascular disease.”
Through regular exercise – at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity per week – individuals can virtually cut their risk of Alzheimer’s disease in half.
- Social Engagement
Not everyone is extroverted, but it’s important to remain socially engaged to protect against the development of Alzheimer’s later in life. This could look like volunteering for a local organization, calling up friends on the phone, getting to know neighbors, or taking classes at a local community center.
- Healthy Diet
It’s been said that Alzheimer’s is “diabetes of the brain.” While this obviously isn’t a perfect analogy, it does indicate how important it is to watch your diet and reduce inflammation.
For best results, people should cut out as many processed foods as possible – especially sugary foods – and consume fresh food. The Mediterranean diet is a good choice. It encourages lots of veggies, beans, whole grains, fish, and healthy fats.
- Mental Stimulation
The part most people do hear about involves regular mental stimulation. Just as you need to be engaging in physical exercise, you should also be working out your brain through regular learning, memory work, and exercises that strengthen memory connections and build the capacity to form and retain cognitive associations.
- Quality Sleep
Poor sleep has long been associated with the development and acceleration of Alzheimer’s. If you aren’t averaging at least eight hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep per night, you need to focus on improving sleep hygiene and getting better rest.
- Stress Management
Finally, chronic stress has a role in the development of Alzheimer’s. It prevents nerve cell growth and directly affects memory. So, in addition to these other five pillars, it’s important to find ways to lower stress and nurture relaxation.
America Must Put Up a Fight
Did you know that the National Institutes of Health spends more than $6 billion per year on cancer research, $4 billion on heart disease research, and $3 billion on AIDS research – yet just $480 million on Alzheimer’s research?
While there’s still more research to be done in order to understand Alzheimer’s, each American can do their part and proactively fight against this debilitating disease by making smart lifestyle choices. Are you ready to do your part?
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