The large majority of us have all been touched by dementia in some form. Whether it’s the long battled suffering of a loved relative or a close friend – dementia affects us all. Given our capacity to live longer, healthier lives we may need the tools to defy dementia and battle a decline in our cognitive capacities down the road. But what are the secrets to delaying, or dare I say it… even preventing the symptoms of this disease?
The exorable decline of cherished memories and short term memory loss for those suffering from dementia is a heartbreaking and heart-gripping fact of the disease. Seeing a loved one succumb to it could be described as slowly watching them try to pick up water with an open palm; over and over again. It’s a battle. Sometimes, one they may not even be aware they are fighting. But is it truly inescapable? We are here to explore whether or not the symptoms of dementia can be defied or prevented from manifesting. Given the cause-and-effect nature of the pathology, scientists and healthcare professionals alike believe dementia can be prevented or perhaps staved off. But what are the steps that we can take?
Dementia and Its Many Faces: Our Current Understanding
The term “dementia” is a description of a set of symptoms that typically include difficulties with the processing of thoughts, reasoning, problem-solving capabilities and, most notably, memory loss. Most of us will use dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as interchangeable terms, yet there are many different faces and many sinister causes of this disease. Alzheimer’s being all but one form (and statistically the most common manifestation at 65% of all cases). Of course, it is hard to envision a future where you or the people you care for suffer from dementia. But in all likelihood, by the time we hit 85 years old chances are it will be either you or the person sitting next to you who start to see the signs. In that respect, we can either be a victim or alternatively a caregiver. We know that all forms share common symptoms of decline in cognitive function and not unsurprisingly, it is a slow and gradual fall for those afflicted. Dementia begins with the loss of upper brain function and an inevitable decline in processing static incentives. In advanced stages, this ultimately leads to the brain forgetting some of our core functions for life; death is inevitable at this point. While the major risk factor for dementia is age, a regression into senility is not a normal product of ageing and there is a considerable amount of pathology behind all the forms of dementia.
Taking a look at Alzheimer’s disease we know the loss of neural connectivity most likely stems from the accumulation of amyloid beta (Aβ) “crowding” at individual synapses of the brain. As we age we may begin to ramp up or not clear away Aβ which ultimately forms soluble oligomers (multiple sticky groups) and, in time, disease-causing plaques (the extracellular deposits of Aβ) between our nerve cells. We will all develop a synaptic incursion of Aβ throughout our lives. But for those who defy its onset, we are able to simply by-pass that individual neurone and establish the formation of a thought or action through our many other synaptic connections. The true problem comes at the height of this amyloid dump; an arbitrary “tipping point” of this process leading to the clinical materialisation of Dementia / Alzheimer’s. This tipping point usually follows when partner cells to the central nervous system known as microglia become involved and hyper-activate, resulting in inflammation and damage to our brain connections. This consequently ends with the formation of twisted strands of proteins known as neurofibrillary tangles (hyper-phosphorylated Tau proteins) and progressive development of Alzheimer’s.
Over time we accumulate more and more plaques and tangles, diminishing connections and destroying neural links. Scientists believe that by keeping these amyloid plaques down from early onset we can maintain our neural connections and delay the symptoms of dementia. Minus obvious injury, to the brain, a lot of research has been invested in order to prevent this twisted garbage of proteins from crowding our brain.
The Genetic Side: Can We Still Defy the Odds If We’re at Risk
DNA alone does not determine if we will get Alzheimer’s or any of the other forms of dementia. A number of causative genes have been implicated in the pathology of dementia but scientists are still working out the molecular mechanisms to their actions. Apolipoprotein E ε4 (ApoE ε4) remains the greatest known genetic risk factor (among many) for late-onset Alzheimer’s. Over 50% of patients present with at least one copy of the variant and those with two have a 20-times increased risk of developing the disease. ApoE naturally serves to degrade beta-amyloid, however amino acid substitutions in the protein sequence generate the isoform ApoE ε4 which is ineffective at destroying the accumulating soluble proteins. With an allele frequency of 13.7% it is present within a sizeable portion of the population, however having this gene variant does not mean you will develop dementia or experience cognitive decline, you will just be at greater risk.
Recently it has become accepted that the way we live can influence the formation of amyloid plaques and make us resilient to the presence of dementia pathologies. Recent evidence has eluded that cognitive reserve is an important component to keeping our synapses in development mode. This refers to our functioning synapses, and as they say: the more the merrier. Keeping in check our capacity to learn and developing more and more synaptic connections can theoretically keep dementia in check. This being said, just doing a crossword each day is not going to affect your neural plasticity and allow your brain to compensate and re-form itself following injury. Studies have shown that people with more formal years of education and those who pursue mentally stimulating activities are resistant to the decline into dementia. Hypothetically it is these redundancies in neural connections that buffer us from damaged ones.
Cardiovascular health contributes about 80% of the risk when it comes to developing dementia. It is widely hypothesised that keeping active will reduce your risk of cognitive decline and prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s as well as type II diabetes and cancer. For a second, let’s forget clinical drugs such as cholesterol-lowering statins and focus on more modifiable and personal preventatives; exercise and diet for example. An active and healthy lifestyle seems like an obvious and over-used sentiment. But why not? Just go for a jog a couple times a week. Walk down the road with your Pokemon-Go for old times’ sake. Even stretch your legs and take your dog for a much needed dementia-fighting walk. Your biggest ally is your cardiovascular system and it wouldn’t hurt to fight off other diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure while you’re at it. In line with this, a study performed by researchers at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behaviour found a healthy, active lifestyle can reduce the protein build-ups that have been associated with the onset of Alzheimer’s and protect the brain during ageing. A much welcomed complementary study performed in mice demonstrated that exercising on a treadmill for 12 weeks can reduce the build-up of plaques and tangles in the brain through activating a cellular housekeeping process known as “autophagy”.
“The fact that we could detect this influence of lifestyle at a molecular level before the beginning of serious memory problems surprised us.”- Dr David Merrill, UCLA
Diet seems another one of those obvious things that can be lost in ramblings of over-priced nutrition peddlers without any scientific merit. But hear us out here; diet could be an easy step to modify in our everyday routine and boost your brain to help fight off dementia. A Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and legumes but low in meat and dairy will put you in the best spot to compliment your new found lifestyle of regular jogging and brain trainers. Diets such as this show great promise in reducing the deposition of Aβ. Finally, we must not forget our much-needed rest. It turns out that deep sleep cleanses the brain and can prevent plaque formation. Poor sleep hygiene may actually increase amyloid production.
Defying Dementia Is Something We All Can Do
To put it as simply as possible: the cure for dementia may be decades away or possibly may never come. But the next few decades will be exciting as we become more aware of how we can personally modify and reduce our risk of cognitive decline. It is in your best interest to learn a different language, meet new friends, read a new book and regularly listen to music. Why not teach yourself to cook an array of dishes filled with healthy fats and take a few dance classes. Not only will these provide fantastic health benefits, but they will also drastically improve your general existence. The secret to fighting back dementia may be as convenient as finding the quickest and complementary ways of increasing our quality of life and personal health. You will never lose your emotional memory so the focus should be on protecting and backing up the rest of your brain.
The opinions in The Freethink Tank’s Opinion category are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.