Forgetfulness that disrupts your daily life is not a normal part of getting older. Learn how to recognize the brain changes that come with age.
Every part of your body changes as you get older, and your brain is no different. That means you might find yourself struggling to remember computer passwords, the name of that actor from that one movie — or even special dates and events.
Occasional forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging, reports the Cleveland Clinic. But serious memory problems that affect your daily life — also known as dementia — are not inevitable. Even so, the risk for dementia does increase as we get older. About one-third of people over age 85 may have some form of the condition, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA).
Being concerned about your brain health is natural, and some prevention and protection is possible. There are certain lifestyle habits that can boost your brain and help fend off or slow the progression of age-related memory problems. The first step? Having a solid understanding of dementia and its most talked-about form, Alzheimer’s disease.
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What is dementia?
Dementia is a category of diseases related to brain function. It is characterized by memory loss and a progressive loss of cognitive function.
- Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form
- Frontotemporal dementia, which damages neurons in the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes
- Lewy body dementia, caused by protein deposits (called Lewy bodies) developing in nerve cells and interrupting chemical messages in the brain
- Vascular dementia, which occurs due to a lack of blood flow to the brain and is sometimes caused by a stroke
- Mixed dementia, which is a combination of types
- Dementia related to Parkinson’s disease, which can develop as Parkinson’s progresses
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare form of dementia that progresses very quickly
Each of these diseases may have different symptoms. For example, Lewy body dementia might cause you to have sleep disturbances and hallucinations. But all types of dementia are considered progressive, with symptoms ranging from mild in the early stages to severe as the condition advances.
Currently, there is no cure for dementia. And the rate of progression varies by person, which can make it difficult to diagnose in the earliest stages.
Recommended reading: 6 Ways to Cut Your Risk of Dementia
What causes dementia?
Dementia is the result of damage to the brain. Some dementias can be traced to medical conditions that affect the brain, reports the Cleveland Clinic. Others develop after blood flow to the brain has become blocked, cutting off the brain’s supply of oxygen and nutrients, which damages brain tissue.
What are the symptoms of dementia?
Your brain sends messages between brain cells with nerve cells called neurons. When once-healthy neurons stop functioning, connections between other brain cells are lost.
Everyone experiences some neuron changes as they grow older. But those with dementia experience this with more severity, and at a faster rate, notes the NIA.
Memory loss is the sign that gets the most attention, but neuron-function loss can lead to a wide range of symptoms. Other early signs of dementia include:
- Repeating questions or stories within a short timeframe
- Using unusual words to refer to familiar objects
- Getting lost in familiar places
- Trouble judging distances
- Emotional changes or loss of interest in everyday activities
- Taking more time to complete normal daily tasks
- Difficulty with reading and writing
- Experiencing confusion or poor judgment
- Trouble handling finances responsibly
- Acting impulsively
Some of these symptoms, when mild, can be a normal part of aging or may signal mild cognitive impairment. Some early signs of dementia could also be situational, such as short-term memory loss when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
As the disease progresses, you might also experience these symptoms:
- Struggling to recognize close friends or family
- Apathy or indifference about other people’s feelings
- Loss of your sense of humor
- Losing balance and having trouble with movement
- Hallucinations, delusions or paranoia
- Sleep disruptions
- Trouble speaking
- Losing sense of time or thinking you are at an earlier period of your life
- Wandering off
When should you see a doctor about memory problems?
If you notice signs of cognitive changes that seem more serious than mild forgetfulness — or they’re impacting your daily life — it’s important to get screened for dementia. That’s especially true if you have a family history of the disease.
Recommended reading: What Is Cognitive Testing — and Should You Ask for It?
How is dementia diagnosed?
Some health issues can cause side effects that are similar to dementia. Your doctor will first rule out other conditions as the root of the problem. For instance, a urinary tract infection in an older person can cause short-term memory problems. Once treated, the memory symptoms should clear up, too.
If your doctor determines you don’t have another physical health condition that could be impacting your brain, they may order one or more of the following tests. An early diagnosis is important so you can begin managing the condition as soon as possible.
Cognitive and neurological tests. These may include assessments of general mental function, such as math and language skills, problem solving and recall. Your doctor may also test your balance and reflexes.
Brain scans. The most common imaging options are a CT (computed tomography) scan, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and a PET (positron emission tomography) scan. These tests show images of the brain and its size, shape and structure. These can help identify problems that could contribute to dementia.
Mental health evaluation. Depression or other mental health conditions sometimes cause dementia symptoms. These disorders can also worsen existing dementia.
Genetic tests. A genetic test can help you know if you’re at higher risk for developing dementia.
How is dementia treated?
Currently, there is no cure for dementia caused by Alzheimer’s or related dementias, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). But the condition can be treated — and research for treatments continues to advance.
For example, in 2023, the FDA approved a drug named Lecanemab (Leqembi®), which targets the brain plaques (amyloid plaques) that may lead to tissue loss in parts of the brain related to memory, thinking and learning. (Amyloid plaques are made up of clusters of amyloid proteins that clump together between nerve cells in the brain.) It’s intended to help in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
There are also medications that may temporarily improve or stabilize thinking skills and memory in some people who’ve been diagnosed, the NINDS reports. These medications may also help manage symptoms. You can talk to your doctor about these options.
Does exercise help with dementia prevention and management?
Just like how moving more is good for your heart, it’s good for your brain too. A study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease compared cognitive function and brain volume in a group of sedentary, older adults with mild cognitive impairment.
Researchers analyzed the levels of amyloids — abnormal, harmful proteins — in participants’ brains at the start of the study and after one year. Those who did aerobic exercise and steadily increased the intensity showed less of a buildup of amyloids than they had at the start of the study.
Another study in the journal Neurology tracked 454 older adults for 20 years, including physical exams and cognitive tests. Researchers found that those who moved more — in any type of activity — had a 31% lower risk of dementia.
Results like these are likely because physical activity helps your brain in numerous ways, according to the Cleveland Clinic. That includes:
- Better cardiovascular health
- Improved blood flow to the brain
- Reduced inflammation
- Lower levels of stress hormones
- Improved integrity of brain’s nerve fibers
- Increased ability to form new neural connections
Not to worry, you don’t have to become a professional athlete to see these benefits. Any amount of movement helps, according to Cleveland Clinic. To get started, here are some tips to build your own brain-body workout.
Even if you don’t meet the Centers for Disease Control guidelines of getting 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week, you can still improve brain function by moving more often.
Does what I eat have an impact on my brain?
Absolutely. Eating certain foods — and avoiding others — has been shown to slow the rate of cognitive decline, according to the NIA. They also note that a nutritious diet can lower your chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
For optimal brain health, Rush University researcher Martha Claire Morris and team put together the best of two evidence-based diets: the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, used for heart health. The result is the MIND diet , which focuses on foods that improve brain health.
Dark leafy greens. Choices like kale, spinach and collard greens have been shown to reduce dementia risk. They’re full of nutrients like folate, vitamin E, carotenoids and flavonoids — plant compounds that reduce inflammation. The MIND diet suggests eating at least six servings weekly of these greens, along with other vegetables.
Berries. Blueberries, strawberries, blackberries and raspberries also have high levels of flavonoids. Plus, they have the added advantage of helping you cut down on sugary treats that aren’t ideal for brain function.
Nuts. Unsalted, dry-roasted or raw nuts are a great source of healthy fats, which help the brain work more efficiently. Some are also packed with vitamin E, which is known for its brain-protective qualities.
Olive oil. Mayo Clinic recommends using this as your primary cooking oil, since it contains plant compounds that have brain-positive, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Butter and margarine don’t.
Fish. Several studies have linked regular fish consumption (once or twice a week) with better performance on memory tests.
What other health factors have an impact on dementia?
Besides what you eat and how often you move, there are other ways to help lower your risk of developing dementia or delaying its progression.
The NIA recommends keeping an eye on these:
- Blood pressure. High blood pressure, or hypertension, has harmful effects on the heart, blood vessels, and brain. It increases the risk of stroke and dementia.
- Blood sugar. When your blood sugar is too high, it can lead to diabetes and may increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, cognitive impairment, and dementia.
- Mental activity. Use your brain before you lose it. Try reading, board games, crossword puzzles or a new hobby.
- Social isolation. Staying connected with family and friends can prevent isolation and loneliness, which may increase the risk for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Hearing problems. Hearing loss may affect cognition and dementia risk in older adults. And it can make it more difficult to interact with others.
- Eye health. A 2022 study published in the American Medical Association’s JAMA Neurology suggests a link between vision impairment and dementia. Keep up to date on your eye exams to catch vision issues before they become a bigger problem.
- Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Put a bedtime routine in place that helps you fall asleep faster. Talk to your doctor if you don’t get nearly that much.
And remember: Every SilverSneakers class is a good way to help train your brain and stay sharp. View class schedules and RSVP here.
See our sources:
Memory issues with age: National Institute on Aging and Cleveland Clinic
Dementia basics: National Institute on Aging and Cleveland Clinic
Treatment and management of dementia: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
FDA approves Lecanemab for early Alzheimer’s disease treatment: Alzheimer’s Association
Dementia and the role of exercise: Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Neurology
Dementia and the role of lifestyle changes: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Vision impairment and dementia: JAMA Neurology
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