People often ask me about computer softwares like Luminosity: “you know, that Luminosity thing, does it really work??” It often leaves me wondering if our societal conceptualization of “dementia” and “Alzheimer’s disease” is somewhat skewed by our old conception of dementia.
Well, a very efficient way to maximize your chances of aging well and prevent cognitive decline, is to keep your heart and body healthy. The brain is an absolutely fantastic organ – I am amazed! But it’s also *only* an organ; it is part of the body, and greatly depends on the cardiovascular system. If your heart and blood vessels are not doing a good job at providing the brain with blood, chances are higher your brain will not be aging as well as it can. By keeping your heart healthy, you contribute to keeping your brain healthy. The opposite is also unfortunately true.
Dementia (now called Major Neurocognitive disorders, as per DSM-V) is a form of label, to describe someone who presents with a significant cognitive decline (i.e. a change in their thinking skills) that interferes with functioning. This cognitive decline can have different causes. The 2 main possible causes are Alzheimer’s disease and cardiovascular diseases.
Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by brain abnormalities called plaques and tangles. Plaques are clumps of protein in the spaces between the brain’s nerve cells. Tangles are masses of twisted protein threads inside the brain’s nerve cells. The scientific community is still researching what causes them to form and how to stop this process, in the hope of finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
Cardiovascular risks factor like diabetes, hypertension, obesity as well as smoking and physical inactivity can also lead to cognitive decline. In Vascular dementia, there is a decline in cognition (thinking skills) that is caused by these cardiovascular conditions, which reduce the blood flow to the brain.
Moreover, cardiovascular conditions can augment or lower the chances of developing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Did you know that there are people who will develop the Alzheimer’s plaques and tangles in their brain, but will not develop the symptoms of Alzheimer’s (i.e. the cognitive decline)? Studies from the last decade have shown that plaques and tangles may be present in the brain without causing symptoms of cognitive decline unless the brain also shows signs of vascular disease. Hence, the idea of modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease.
The modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease are diabetes, hypertension, obesity, current smoking, physical inactivity, depression, and cognitive inactivity. They are the 7 risk factors that are most consistently associated with dementia in scientific reviews and meta-analyses.
Controlling cardiovascular risk factors contributes to protect your brain health.
You have more power over your brain’s health than you think and there is much more to life than Luminosity! Go get this Bixi subscription this summer, bike/run/walk to work a few days per week, cut down the refined sugar a bit, reduce your smoking as much as possible, stop if you can. Every little bit counts: go outside and play! Get the intellectual stimulation you deserve: get out of the house and spend time with your friends, get yourself challenged by learning a new language or taking an online course, and treat yourself with a trip to practice it! Keep on using your brain! No one is perfect (I certainly am not) but my message is: you do have some control over your brain’s health, take advantage of it.
Scientists are doing everything they can to understand, prevent and treat dementia, especially given our demographical context. We are working on new treatment approaches and science is progressing. However, let’s not underestimate the power of prevention. Whether you are in your 20s or in your 50s, keep your hearth and body healthy. It will increase your chances of keeping your brain healthy and your memory efficient, as we all age, a little more each day 🙂