As we go through life, we all hope we can maintain good physical and mental health as long as possible. There is not much pleasure in living a long life if our final years are spent in pain and if we lose our ability to think and remember. As much as we may dread suffering physical pain and illness in old age, many of us fear even more the possibility that we might lose our mental capacities and end up completely helpless in a nursing home.
Often the first hint that our memory is starting to lose its sharpness happens around the fifth decade of life. As people enter their middle years, they start to notice more and more frequent lapses of memory, particularly their short-term memory. They may enter a room to do something, and forget what it is. They may be unable to recall the name of someone who used to live next door. And they may start to worry that their forgetfulness is more than just a harmless incident, they worry that it might be the first hint of something far more sinister--perhaps the onset of Alzheimer's Disease.
Alzheimer's is the name given to a very serious brain disease in which the brain cells are killed by microscopic plaques and tangled fibers. The parts of the brain needed to form and access recent memories are usually destroyed first. Brain cell destruction spreads to other parts of the brain, causing a loss of function, and eventually death follows.
At present there is no known cure for Alzheimer's disease. Scientists are racing to learn the cause, or causes of Alzheimer's, and to find a way to stop the destruction of the brain once it starts. As baby boomers age, millions of them will be at risk for acquiring Alzheimer's and other serious brain diseases.
Alzheimer's disease is not the only cause of loss of brain function in elderly persons. There are many other causes that can lead to a diminishment of mental capacity or to outright dementia in later years.
Fortunately, you can learn what the risk factors are which are associated with a higher likelihood of developing problems, and you can take steps to counteract them.
And the good news is: you don't need to make a choice between looking after your heart, or looking after your brain. In many cases, what's good for the heart will benefit the brain as well.
High blood pressure is a major risk factor in developing dementia. Not only does high blood pressure damage brain cells directly, but it also increases the risk of stroke, which will lead to the permanent destruction of brain cells. To prevent strokes, have your blood pressure checked regularly, and if your blood pressure is too high, work with your doctor to bring it down to a safe level.
Diabetics are at particularly high risk for developing dementia. If you are diabetic, it is very important to get your blood sugar levels under control.
If you want to protect your brain for the long term, avoid excess alcohol consumption. Long term consumption of more than two alcoholic drinks a day can directly damage brain cells, as well as deplete the body of important nutrients it requires to function, particularly Vitamin B1 (thiamin).
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people suffer brain injuries occur as a result of automobile accidents. Many of these traumas could be prevented or reduced by slowing down while driving, and by wearing a seat belt.
We know that some senior citizens are able to live into their eighties and nineties with their minds sharp and their bodies still spry. Will we be among the lucky ones? Is it just a matter of random luck? Is losing our mental powers as we age inevitable?
The good news is that statistically the odds are on your side. Most people are able to keep their thinking clear as they age unless they develop Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, or diabetes. As long as the brain itself remains healthy, older people can preserve their ability to learn, to think and remember, although it may take them longer to process their thoughts than it used to. And in some forms of mental skills, seniors are actually able to outperform much younger people!
By studying the health habits of senior citizens who have reached old age with their minds and bodies intact, scientists have discovered some of the factors that seem to be associated with better mental functioning in old age.
Based on these studies, scientists believe that some of the factors that influence whether or not you stay mentally healthy in your later years are actually under your control.
There is some evidence that people who have a diet high in antioxidants have lower rates of getting Alzheimer's. Fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly those that have strong, bright colors, tend to be high in protective antioxidants that help repair damage to the body's cells caused by harmful chemicals called free radicals.
People who consume greater levels of cold water fish such as salmon, tend to have lower rates of Alzheimer's disease. There are also vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements that seem to have a protective effect on the brain. Higher intakes of Folic acid are associated with a lower incidence of Alzheimer's disease.
People who continue learning, who keep on reading, writing, and acquiring new skills tend to be sharper in their mental skills as they age. Scientists think that perhaps learning new things helps brain cells make more connections.
If you want to follow in the footsteps of those who manage to reach their later years with both their bodies and their minds in good shape, make it a priority to eat well, exercise regularly, and get sufficient sleep.