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3. A healthy lifestyle helps. Even though dementia has its own mind, so to speak, there are plenty of things you can do to help stave it off. At the top of the list: exercise, both mental and physical. According to data from a large-scale Framingham Study released in 2010, moderate to heavy exercise can reduce a person’s risk of dementia by about 40 percent. And, as we’ve all been hearing forever, crossword puzzles and other “mental stimulators” can help maintain a healthy mind. But keep the focus on learning new things instead of repeating the old, says McCloud. “If you’re good at one thing, whether it’s playing bridge or crossword puzzles, just doing a lot of that one thing is not going to help a lot,” he says. “The idea is to learn or do something new, whether it’s a language, an instrument or becoming active in clubs.” Learning new things opens up new neural paths in the brain, explains Schafer—a concept known as cognitive reserve. “The more things you learn, the more you put your brain to work, the longer it’s going to last,” he says. “The better your brain works, the more you can lose before you become demented.” Other things that have been shown to battle memory loss and improve brain function: blueberries, turmeric, Omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins B12 and D. And don’t forget the two s’s: sleep and socializing. A sleep-deprived brain can’t function well, and socializing gives the brain a big boost, says Kile. “Of all the cognitive activities,” he says, “it’s the best.” How so? It exercises all of the different hemispheres of the brain, from your language cortex to your memory centers.
4. It could be a zillion things. Listen up: Memory problems are not all age-related. On the short list of possible causes: depression, diabetes, brain tumor, silent stroke, thyroid disease, anemia. From No. 3 above, you also can deduce things such as vitamin B12 deficiency (long known to muck up the memory banks) and sleep disorders. And here’s a really big one: medication madness. “Many of the medicines older adults are on significantly affect memory and brain skills,” McCloud says. That’s why he suggests seeing a primary doc or geriatrician for evaluation first, before you run to the neurologist. “When people say, ‘Oh gosh, I’m having too many senior moments,’ I stress the importance of seeing your primary care physician or geriatrician, because we really do look at the broad picture,” says McCloud. “You need someone who can step back and take off the blinders.” If need be, have your primary doc refer you to a neurologist.
5. Science is working on it. There’s good news and bad news. First, the bad: Even though it’s 2012, science still hasn’t come up with a way to successfully treat dementia. Though several drugs on the market are purported to improve cognitive performance and slow the disease’s progression, they don’t quite cut it, according to Mercy’s Schafer. “The effects of these drugs are very modest, to say the very least,” he says. “In my experience, most patients don’t notice a significant difference.” But there is hope. Preliminary studies have been especially promising for IVIG, an intravenously administered blood product that has been shown to help clear the beta-amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease. These plaques build between the neurons of the brain, disrupting normal function, explains Kile. He would know: It’s among the things Kile and his team are studying at Sutter’s Memory Clinic, where a clinical trial is currently under way to study IVIG’s effect on patients with mild cognitive impairment. It’s too soon to guess the outcome of the study, which is in its early stages, Kile says. But he is hopeful. “It’s not far-fetched to predict good results, because in studies with Alzheimer’s patients, it (IVIG) has been shown to improve cognition and maintain brain volume,” he says. “It’s an exciting trial.” But, as he points out, it’s just one of many studies under way for the prevention or treatment of AD or MCI, lending hope to the idea that effective therapies may arrive sooner rather than later.
6. Look on the bright side. Let’s be real: No one welcomes memory loss or any of aging’s not-so-sweet side effects. But McCloud offers a positive spin. “Along with the intellectual decline that happens with aging, there are other things that improve: our vocabulary, our wisdom, our sense of humor,” he says. “When you look at what we lose, maybe it’s a fair trade-off when you look at the positive thingsv we gain.”
We’ll try to commit that to memory.
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