Brain Health, Dementia and Alzheimer's: What You Need to Know

By: Ebony McKinnies, MD, Neurologist

We grow, we learn, we age, we forget. Or do we? New research shows that our brains actually change over our lifetimes, adapting and meeting the challenges at each stage.

Of all life's milestones, none may be more pronounced than those associated with brain development. From birth to two years old, babies are like sponges, soaking up language and knowledge that's all around them. For a 65-year-old person, learning a new language may be more difficult, but not impossible.

Research also shows that a healthy lifestyle helps brains age better. Memory naturally declines with age, but the better we treat our brains along the way can lead to healthier brains as we get older.

Brain Health

Healthy lifestyle habits, from diets to active social lives, can slow memory decline. Studies show links between dementia and lifestyle factors such as social isolation and obesity. Here are six habits to keep the brain and rest of our bodies, healthy:

  • Balanced diets—Eating appropriate daily servings of at least 7 of 12 major foods: fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, dairy products, salt, oil, eggs, cereals, legumes, nuts and tea.
  • Exercise for the mind and body—Engaging in at least 150 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity a week and exercising the mind at least twice a week by reading, playing cards, crossword puzzles, video games or any activity that challenges the brain.
  • Social life—Keeping up with family and friends socially at least twice a week. As witnessed during the pandemic lockdown, social isolation can increase risks for physical and mental health conditions including dementia, hypertension, heart disease and depression. John Hopkins researchers estimate that people who are socially isolated have a 28% higher chance of developing dementia.
  • Limited alcohol consumption and no smoking—People who never drink or only occasionally and never smoked show slower rates of memory decline.

Signs of Dementia

While our brains are mostly set at birth, the ways that different parts of the brain communicate with each other changes throughout our lives. This accounts for increases and decreases in our cognitive abilities.

Dementia is the umbrella term for a number of conditions, such as Alzheimer's, that results in decreased cognitive functions. When we forget where we put our keys or can't remember where our glasses are—usually on top of our heads—we shouldn't panic. Forgetfulness happens at all ages. Research shows that even age-related dementia can be reversed or stabalized with lifestyle changes (as previously listed) and medication before it progresses.

Seeking early care, following healthy lifestyle habits and being aware of environmental toxins increase chances of preserving our memory and preventing dementia.

Risk Factors and Signs of Alzheimer's

The Alzheimer's Association defines the disease as a type of dementia that affects memory, thinking and behavior. It affects 60–80% of dementia patients. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 6 million Americans have Alzheimer's, the most common type of dementia.

While the disease is progressive with no known cure, new advancements in treatment and medication give hope to patients and their caregivers. The biggest risk factor is age, as the disease typically affects people 65 years and older. However, younger early-onset Alzheimer's disease affects much younger ages.

Other risk factors include:

  • Family history
  • Genetics
  • Head injury
  • Heart disease—overall heart health seems to protect brain health.

Discuss any concerns about possible memory loss with a healthcare provider sooner rather than later.

The American Alzheimer's Association recommends being aware of these early signs of Alzheimer's:

  • Memory loss that disrupts daily life
  • Changes in ability to plan or problem solve
  • Difficulty completing everyday tasks
  • Vision problems such as difficulty judging distance or determining colors and contrasts
  • Confusion with time or place; forgetting where we are or how we got there
  • Struggling with words in conversation or writing
  • Misplacing things and being unable to retrace steps
  • Decreased or poor judgement
  • Withdrawal from work or social activities
  • Sudden changes in mood and personality

If you or someone you know displays any of these signs, confide in someone you trust and see a doctor. The Alzheimer's Association also offers a 24-hour helpline, 800-272-3900.

For more information contact Thibodaux Regional Neurology Clinic, 985.493.3090.