“I’m losing my mind.”……..”My brain is like a sieve.”……..”I’d lose my head if it wasn’t attached.”
We’ve all said things like this at moments of confusion or forgetfulness; however when it is more than just an occasional memory glitch, cognitive impairment can be serious and scary.
June is designated as Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month by the Alzheimer’s Association, who estimates that 47 million people worldwide are living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, with women, Hispanics and African-Americans being at the highest risk. It is the most expensive disease in the United States, costing $259 billion a year, most of which stems from treatment and caregiving.
Sadly, at this time, it is a fatal disease, but early detection can play a major role in enhancing quality of life. Knowing what to look for and distinguishing between occasional/explainable behavior, and sudden, severe and prolonged out-of-character symptoms is key.
Top indicators include the following:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life where someone is forgetting newly learned information and important dates, while repeatedly asking the same questions and relying on others for things he could once do for himself.
- Difficulty developing and following a plan, especially with numbers such as a recipe or budget.
- Trouble with everyday tasks and errands.
- Severe confusion with time and place that cannot be recalled and/or forgetting where they are, with no knowledge of how they got there.
- Vision problems including judging distance and contrasts.
- Struggling with speaking, writing, and language comprehension.
- Poor judgement and/or lack of caring which is contrary to a person’s usual nature.
- Losing items without being able to logically retrace steps to find them. May also manifest in putting things in odd places and blaming others for the “missing” items.
- Withdrawal from social interactions with heightened and irrational depression, anxiety, and fear.
While, unfortunately, Alzheimer’s can’t currently be prevented, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of mental decline and contribute to overall brain health.
- Engage in regular cardiovascular exercise that elevates the heart rate, which increases blood flow to the brain. A University of British Columbia study showed that regular aerobic exercise boosts the size of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain involved in verbal memory and learning. Elevating the heart rate (and therefore increasing blood flow) is the necessary part of the exercise. It also stimulates the release of chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells and growth and survival of new blood vessels.
- Take care of your heart and your brain will follow. Risk factors for cardiovascular disease and stroke (obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes) affect cognitive health.
- Keep your mind active through new and challenging activities, including learning new skills and information.
- Be socially active with people and activities that have a meaningful connection for you. In addition to keeping your mind active, it may help fend off depression, as there have been links between depression and an increased risk of cognitive decline.
- Don’t smoke – and if you do, quit. As with all health risks and factors, smoking has a negative effect on cognitive development.
- Maintain overall healthy habits such as a balanced diet that is lower in fat and higher in fruits and vegetables.
- Get plenty of sleep. Insomnia and sleep apnea may lead to problems with memory and thought processes.
Anyone can forget something, misplace items and become confused. When it is an ongoing occurrence, impacting daily life and representing a marked change in behavior is when it needs medical attention. Don’t let misinformation or embarrassment stop you or your loved ones from getting a diagnosis.
And don’t wait for symptoms to occur to strengthen your cognitive functions. Take steps today for a healthy mind and body. After all, we can all use a “good head on our shoulders.”