The Prevention of Cognitive Decline: How to Live Past 90.

miriam minsker

The prevention and treatment of cognitive impairment in the elderly has become an increasingly visible field of study as our nation ages. Recent research ranging from lifestyle measures to pharmacological treatments suggests that dietary measures, physical exercise, and mental activity may reduce the risk of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease in elderly subjects. There are more questions than answers, but even CBS News has taken note of the increased attention science is paying.

Because life expectancy is increasing, the proportion of elderly persons in the general population is also rising. With increasing age comes increasing risk of dementia, and these numbers are also on the rise. For example, one recent study found that incidences of dementia in the U.S. rose from .35% for those aged 65-69 years to 7.28% in those aged 85 years and older. In another recent study, the prevalence of dementia in the U.S. was reported at 13.9% among individuals aged 71 years and older. Whatever the true numbers are, our population is increasingly faced with one question – how do we support living well into old age and avoid cognitive decline?

While science has yet to define a cure for dementia, it has begun to identify a number of preventative correlations, which is to say that there are things we can do that seem to have an impact on our ability to avoid demetia-related diseases:

  • Avoidable pitfalls…avoid them! These include smoking, hypertension, high homocysteine levels, type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, hypercholesterolemia, and obesity.
  • Live well. Higher education, physical exercise, and mental exercise are well established as important pro-cognitive attributes and behaviors.
  • Eat even better. Dietary measures, such as high intake of fish, fruit and vegetables suggest a positive role for omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and B group vitamins such as B6, and B12.
  • Drink tea. Studies suggest tea intake may protect against cognitive decline in the elderly.
  • Exercise every day. Even 15 minutes per day will greatly benefit the individual. Physical exercise may reduce the risk of dementia, and markedly improves lifespan.
  • Stimulate the mind. Those who keep active in non-physical ways, whether socializing, playing board games, or attending book clubs, are practicing habits associated with longer life. Studies suggest that persons who are mentally active are at a lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia in old age.
  • Have a drink!? But not three. In a landmark study of thousands of members of a retirement community in California, it was surprisingly found that those who drank up to two drinks per day had a 10-15 percent reduced risk of death compared to non-drinkers.
  • Don’t sweat a few extra pounds. Being obese at any age is unhealthy. However older people who are moderately overweight or average weight live longer than people who are underweight.

There has been an explosion of research into the prevention of cognitive impairment. While we are not yet clear how to prevent the diseases, it is likely that within the next five years, dramatic developments may change the way doctors protect cognition in the elderly and prevent cognitive decline in already impaired persons.

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