1. Not a specific disease
In itself, dementia is not a disease. Instead, it is a group of symptoms that result in a loss of mental functions (e.g., memory, reasoning, thinking) that is severe enough to interfere with an individual’s ability to function daily.
2. What’s in a name?
The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer disease. In reality, however, more than 50 other known causes of dementia (most of which are very rare) have been identified. Approximately 50% to 60% of all dementia is caused by Alzheimer disease, which occurs on its own instead of as a result of another disease.
3. No turning back the clock
The risk for dementia increases as individuals get older. In fact, dementia is rare in people who are younger than 60 years. Most causes of dementia are nonreversible (degenerative), whereas a few can be stopped or reversed if they are discovered early enough (e.g., brain tumors, selected metabolic causes, depression, low levels of vitamin B12, etc.).
4. A sign of the times
Every 70 seconds, an individual in the United States develops Alzheimer disease. On the other hand, twinges of forgetfulness or an occasional memory lapse is not an unequivocal signal of impending dementia. The key point to remember is that not everyone who experiences a case of mild cognitive impairment will develop dementia.
5. Road map to reality
A number of strategies can be used to diagnose the existence of dementia. Because it can enable timely treatment of symptoms, the key is an early accurate diagnosis. As such, those individuals with treatable symptoms can take appropriate steps. By the same token, an early diagnosis may be able to provide those people who have symptoms that can’t be treated with time to plan for the future while they still have the ability to participate in the decision-making process.
6. Within reason
Most cases of dementia cannot be reversed or be halted from progressing further. On the other hand, certain medications and other measures can help treat some patients with dementia to a limited degree. For example, drugs designed specifically for patients with Alzheimer disease have been found to improve the symptoms and slow the progression of the disease to some extent.
7. An ounce of prevention
Although no definitively proven way to prevent dementia has been found to date, research studies indicate that it may eventually become possible to ward off some forms of dementia. On the other hand, a few factors have been identified that can help delay the onset of dementia in some people, for example, lowering cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
8. Move to improve
Exercising on a regular basis has been linked to a substantial decrease in dementia risk. For example, according to one relatively large study conducted in recent years, exercise was shown to reduce the risk of dementia (including Alzheimer disease) by as much as 40%. Another investigation found that physical activity undertaken in middle age makes participants more than 50% less likely to develop dementia two decades later than their sedentary counterparts.
9. Exercise both the body and the mind
Physical activity, as well as mental exercises, can improve the condition of patients with dementia to some extent. Among the ways that exercise can be beneficial to individuals with dementia are its ability to increase blood flow to the brain, its effect on metabolism, which can help control blood glucose levels, its impact on the body’s hormonal and immune systems, and its capacity to strengthen the spine and the muscles of the spine. Patients with dementia also should exercise their mind by performing "mental" activities, which can have a positive impact on the normal functioning of the brain.
10. No way to behave
Making specific lifestyle changes can substantially reduce a person’s risk of contracting dementia. Although researchers have not yet been able to pinpoint the exact cause of dementia, several modifiable risk factors for the condition have been ascertained, including type of diet (consume more fruits and vegetables), level of alcohol consumption (drink less), and tobacco use (don’t smoke).
James A. Peterson, Ph.D., FACSM, is a freelance writer and consultant in sports medicine. From 1990 until 1995, Dr. Peterson was director of sports medicine with StairMaster. Until that time, he was professor of physical education at the United States Military Academy.
Copyright 2010 by the American College of Sports Medicine.