Last summer we visited my wife’s grandma in Oregon.  Even though I’ve known her for nearly 20 years, I had to introduce myself because dementia has slowly erased her previous memories of me.  Dementia affects millions of people as they age and often robs them of an active, independent retirement.  Are there things you can do to minimize your risks of developing it?  New research offers encouraging results, but before getting into that, let’s look at a quick definition of dementia and how it affects people as they age.

What is dementia?

Dementia is not a single disease, but rather is a general term used to describe a loss of brain function or decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with your daily life.  It affects memory, thinking, attention, language, judgment, problem solving and behavior.  As it worsens, it can affect your ability to take care of yourself and can often lead to further problems like depression and anxiety.

Dementia was referred to as far back as Aristotle and Plato and has long been considered to be an inevitable sign of aging.  Only recently has the “inevitable” part begun to change, which brings me back to the research that I mentioned earlier.  It points to two key ways to slow, minimize or even prevent dementia.

Exercising your body

A pair of studies out of the U.K. reveal that exercise seems to play a significant role in reducing the risk of dementia and improving cognitive function later in life.  In other words, what is good for your heart is good for your head.

In the first study, researchers tracked the exercise habits of 9,000 different individuals between the ages of 11 and 50.  They interviewed each person about their workouts at ages 11, 16, 33, 42, 46 and 50 and then tested their cognitive functioning at age 50.  The results?  The more intense and regular a person’s exercise was throughout life, the better they performed when tested on things like memory, learning, attention and reasoning.

In the second study, researchers tracked 2,235 men over 35 years to see how things like regular exercise, not smoking, low bodyweight, healthy diet and low alcohol intake affected their probability of getting different diseases.  People who followed at least four of those variables had a 60% decline in dementia rates, with the number one factor being exercise.  As a bonus, they also had a 70% decline in diabetes, heart disease and stroke compared to the other participants who weren’t following any of the five variables.

Exercising your brain

Exercising your body seems to be an effective way to stave off dementia, but what about exercising your brain?  Companies like Lumosity offer “brain games” that purport to keep you mentally sharp, but do they work or are they just expensive computer games?  The National Institute on Aging just released a major study that finally provides some concrete evidence.

The study was published last month in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society.  It followed 2,800 people in their early 70s and gave them both computer based and pencil and paper tests.  The volunteers were divided into a control group (which received no training) and three test groups, which received training in either reasoning, information processing speed or memory.  Immediately following the training, the three test groups were performing significantly better in their particular area of training compared to the control group.  Those benefits were still evident five years later when all four groups were retested.  Ten years later the reasoning and speed groups were still showing significant benefits, but the effectiveness of the memory training seems to have faded.

Still, study coauthor Sharon Tennstedt, said that the training “helped participants carry out everyday activities as if they were about 10 years younger, allowing someone at 80 to function more like a typical 70-year-old.”  Interviews with participants seemed to back this up.  Most reported less difficulty than the control group with everyday activities like shopping, cooking and handling their money.  The bottom line?  Brain training won’t prevent dementia, but it can delay its arrival.

Focus on what you can control

You’ve heard me say before that you should focus on what you can control when planning your retirement.  That includes things like saving, reducing debt, deciding when to take Social Security and planning meaningful pursuits.  We now know that minimizing your risk of dementia is on that list as well.  Do what you can to keep yourself physically and mentally fit and you will greatly increase your odds of an active, independent, rewarding retirement.

~ Joe

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