My sister reached out to me yesterday about diet and dementia. She found a recent story circulating on FB about how family members “cured” an 82-year-old woman’s dementia. “I want to hear what Rita has to say.” Thank you, Margo! This blog is dedicated to my sister, my Aunt Peg and other FB friends who are terrified about this disease. Also, kudos to fellow blogger Elaine Eshbaugh (When Dementia Knocks) who also tackled the related issue of unsolicited (and usually FREAKIN’ WRONG) advice heaped on family caregivers.
Probably Didn’t Have Dementia
Can people with memory problems get better? YES!!! There are several medical problems, like an under-active thyroid, that can throw a wrench into memory abilities. Other fixable problems include poor sleep, anxiety, and depression. Medications can mess up memory. STRESS interferes with concentration. I have an entire blog devoted to these fixable problems.
Is memory loss a “normal” part of the aging process? Maybe, maybe not. Once upon a time, poor physical health was considered a normal part of aging. It is not. I hang with a tribe of fearless women who take jumps, fox hunt, and make a 2-ton horse prance like a ballerina in a dressage arena. I call the horse I ride “a bucking idiot”when he decides to throw his back legs into the air when I ask for a canter. We climb up on large, majestic creatures because we stay physically (and mentally) fit. And we are (mostly) adrenaline junkies. Some of our most athletic horses are geriatric equines–30+ years old–who are beating the odds because we take excellent care of them. The point is both the humans and animals in my world are defying stereotypes about aging and physical ability.
We can apply the same thinking to brain health. Yes, neurons do die off as part of the aging process. But we may make the process of neuron loss much faster!! If we slowly limit brain activity, more neurons die off from inactivity. Just like muscles weaken and shrink if not used, but tone and firm with regular movement and weight-bearing.
Where Does Healthy Eating Come In?
Like the body, the brain needs fuel. The body is not designed to get nutrition from pills, but from whole foods. Eating brightly colored (and varied) fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and plant fats have been shown over and over and over again to improve physical and mental health. Plus, there is the mind-body connection. If my body feels good (in part from good nutrition), my thinking feels clearer. I feel sharp. If my body feels bad, I cannot concentrate.
Here is where diet CAN fit in. Healthy diets increase blood flow to the brain. Healthy diets reduce the threat of diabetes. Healthy diets plus exercise reduce cardiovascular disease–less cholesterol (plaque) clogging up the arteries. Cardiovascular disease causes strokes, sometimes without symptoms. If you have enough small strokes in your brain, you lose memory and the ability to do activities over time. The memory problems from these strokes often show up as people age, because they are also losing neurons.
No “One Cause” Dementia
None of the dementias (Alzheimer’s dementia, vascular dementia, Lewy Body, frontotemporal) are caused by one single issue. In fact, few people have just one type of dementia–many have at least two or more happening at the same time. And here is another fun fact: amyloid plaque DOES NOT CAUSE Alzheimer’s dementia. When amyloid plaque was successfully removed from the brains of people with diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease, the memory problems remained. No cure happened. This new way of thinking challenges how scientists have been searching for cures.
I am not suggesting that people simply say “screw this” and go into a fatalistic attitude about their dementia risk. I am suggesting that there is more to the dementias than we know and understand…today. The bottom line is that one of the best ways to reduce dementia risk is to adopt a balanced and healthy life. We are social beings who need to belong. We are creative beings who need outlets. We are spiritual beings who need sacred spaces. If we engage less, if we stop meeting our many needs, if we stay stuck in unhealthy relationships (with people, food, booze, work, even medications), we jeopardize our overall health–and our cognitive health.
Dr. Rita Jablonski
Rita Jablonski, PhD, CRNP, FAAN, FGSA is a nurse practitioner, researcher, tenured professor, and former family caregiver. Her research and practice involve all aspects of dementia management; she is best known for non-drug strategies to address dementia-related behaviors.