“Life without memory is no life at all,” the Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel said. “Without it, we are nothing.”
Age can erode memory just as rain wears down a tar roof or wooden deck. About 40% of us will experience some form of memory loss after age 65. Most of that is transient, like occasionally forgetting keys or fumbling a bit before you find the right word.
But especially the oldest among us face more serious memory problems, such as dementia or the progressive fatal brain disease called Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 6.2 million Americans over the age of 65 are living with Alzheimer’s disease, 11% of the elderly population. Alzheimer’s disease is twice as prevalent among older Blacks and 1.5 times more common among Hispanics as it is among older whites. One in three U.S. seniors will die while suffering from Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.
Although dementia is not a normal part of aging, age is the biggest risk factor, said Monica Moreno, the Alzheimer’s Association’s senior director, care and support, who has worked with patients and caregivers for years.
“The older you get, the more at risk you are to develop the disease. And that risk after 65 really doubles every five years,” she told me in a telephone interview.
That may be why two-thirds of people living with Alzheimer’s or dementia are women: They live on average about five years longer than men do. The people who suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia in their 80s are those who didn’t die of cardiovascular disease or cancer in their 60s or 70s.
Scientists are still trying to determine the causes of dementia, besides age. Genetics may play a role, but Moreno told me that fewer than 1% of the people who may have a genetic predisposition to the disease will actually get it. Chronic physical diseases, smoking, alcohol consumption, prescription medicines, lack of sleep, depression — all could contribute to memory problems in older people.
Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between age-related memory loss and dementia, since as Moreno notes, “Alzheimer’s disease affects each person differently.”
But there are signs and symptoms that should get your attention. The Alzheimer’s Association has a list of 10 early warning signs, including memory loss, that either disrupt daily life, make it harder to plan or solve problems or make completing everyday tasks more difficult.
“They may have more difficulty being able to follow new steps or directions, whereas before they didn’t have that difficulty,” said Moreno. “They may be forgetting dates or they might be getting mail saying that their electricity is going to be turned off because now they’ve forgotten to pay the bill.”
One of the most common signs, she pointed out, was a sudden inability to do things you’ve done routinely. “A vice president of a bank was really great at math, and then one day she was trying to help her grandchildren with their math homework and she didn’t even know how to do simple arithmetic,” Moreno said.
“We had an adviser who was a renowned chef, a James Beard Award winner, and one morning she woke up and forgot how to make an omelet. It’s those things that you do every day and have done your whole life that all of a sudden become really difficult to carry out.” Moreno stresses that because the disease’s presentation varies so much, what’s normal forgetfulness to one individual may be a red flag for another that should prompt a visit to a physician.
So, is there anything people can do to prevent getting dementia or Alzheimer’s as they age? Yes, there appear to be. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Studies show that people who are physically active are less likely to experience a decline in their mental function and have a lowered risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease,” as well as combating other risk factors such as depression and obesity.
Socializing is vital, too. One study showed that “women with larger social networks were 26% less likely to develop dementia than those with smaller social networks. And women who had daily contact with friends and family cut their risk of dementia by almost half.”
Diet can play a role, too. The National Institutes of Aging reported that a Mediterranean diet low in red meat and too much sugar and including more fish and poultry, leafy green vegetables, nuts and berries may be associated with a lower risk for dementia.
Again, the research in this field is evolving—and we’ll try to keep you abreast of important new findings—but based on what we know, regular exercise, socializing and nutritious eating may help prevent or delay the onset of dementia. Healthy living, it turns out, is good for your body and your mind. And if you see one or more of the warning signs, please contact your physician.