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.
It’s no secret that prescription drug costs can put a big dent in your retirement budget. What you may not know is that the cost of those drugs can vary (sometimes drastically) based on which pharmacy fills your prescription.
The assumption is that drugs have set prices and every pharmacy charges the same price for the same drug. The reality is that pharmacists charge what they want. If you have a high deductible health plan or you’re in the “donut hole” on the Medicare Prescription Drug plan, going to the wrong pharmacy can mean much higher out-of-pocket costs. Until recently, there was no tool to compare what different pharmacies were charging for a certain drug in your area.
Doug Hirsch and Scott Marlette have changed that. They were early employees at Facebook until eventually moving on to pursue other ventures. One day Doug had a prescription that he needed to have filled. The price of the drug at his regular pharmacy seemed really high, so he shopped around and found that the cost varied significantly. Long story short, they figured out a way to create a huge database of drug prices from all over the country and launched a new website called GoodRX where people can enter a drug name and their location and get a comparison of what pharmacies are charging.
To get an idea of the diversity of prices, I went to GoodRX and compared prices on a variety of different drugs. For some drugs, the prices were very consistent from pharmacy to pharmacy. For others, there was a huge difference. For example, I looked up a variety of drugs used in the treatment of colon cancer. The high and low for my area are listed below.
Leuprolide—High: $436.17, Low: $188.52
Taxotere—High: $640.61, Low: $275.12
Flutamide—High: $50.14, Low: $29.20
As you can see, those are some pretty wide swings. If you visit the site, you’ll notice that there are coupons available for many drugs and there is also a mobile App available so you can check prices while you’re actually in the pharmacy.
Have a great weekend!
Photo by Wil Taylor. Used under Creative Commons License.
Most of us know what we need to do to keep our bodies fit, but how can we keep our brain fit? It turns out that the answer might be the same for both: Exercise.
An article in the Wall Street Journal recently highlighted a study that has been following a group of Scottish school children born in 1936. In 1947, at age 11, those children were tested for cognitive ability. Sixty years later, a group of them agreed to retake the same test.
In addition to the cognition test, they filled out lengthy questionnaires that examined things like family history, health history and level of physical activity. They also underwent MRI brain scans. The results? There appeared to be a direct correlation between physical activity and brain shrinkage. Those who were inactive had more brain shrinkage and greater cognitive decline. Those who were active had less. Alan Gow, one of the researchers conducting the survey, summarized it this way: “People who exercise more have better brain health.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the study didn’t find a similar correlation between brain health and things like social interaction or intellectual activities. In other words, if you want to keep your brain fit as you age, put down the Sudoku and pick up the barbell.
Fit by 40 Update
While we’re on the topic of health, I thought I’d give you an update on my own quest to get into shape. My trainer continues to come up with workouts apparently taken from the Rocky IV playbook (push this box, life this weight, chase this chicken). So far I’ve dropped ten pounds of fat and replaced it with five pounds of lean muscle. I still have a ways to go, but so far so good.
Thanks for the encouraging notes that many of you have sent. Hopefully some of you will use my story as motivation to start a program of your own. Especially now that we know how exercise can benefit our brain as well as our biceps.
Have a great week!
Photo by Kiran Raja Bahadur. Used under Creative Commons License.
For the past year or so, I’ve noticed a disconcerting trend. Each time I step on the scale, the number gets larger. Has there been some sort of change in the gravitational pull of the earth or am I putting on weight?
In 2003 I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C. I weighed about 185 pounds and could run 10 miles without breaking a sweat. Now I weigh 215 pounds and get winded chasing my daughter around the park. If that trend continues, in 10 years I’ll weigh 245 pounds and will be pricing mobility scooters.
In life, there are certain problems that are easier to solve sooner rather than later (more on that below). I turn 40 in December and getting into shape is not getting any easier. Not only is my body clinging to calories like a tiger clings to its kill, but finding the motivation is getting harder as I get busier and take on more responsibilities. If I want to be around for another 40 years, however, I need to put the excuses aside and reacquaint myself with physical activity.
Fit by 40
And so, about a month and a half ago I started going to a personal trainer. I had been lamenting to my boss that I wanted to get in shape, but 1) I needed some accountability and 2) I needed to workout during the day because mornings and evenings were too busy with work and family.
As luck would have it, his son (who plays college football) had gone to a trainer for years. My boss had recently started going as well and he invited me to come along. Not only that, but he told me to take off work early three days a week and he would pay for it. Hard to argue with that.
My first day at the “gym” was pretty humbling. First off, it was not a gym, but a converted warehouse. Imagine that barn in the middle of Russia where Rocky trained in Rocky IV and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about. Lifting rocks—check. Chopping wood—check. Pulling Paulie on a sled through a snowstorm—well, you get the idea.
The people training there were serious: Elite high school, college and professional athletes; ultimate fighters (all wearing oxygen depravation masks to simulate altitude); and…me.
So far my time there has been great. My mantra is “Fit by 40.” The pounds have started to come off. I have more energy. Most of all, I feel good that I’m actually being proactive about a problem that I (and millions of other Americans) struggle with.
Why am I mentioning this? Two reasons:
First, I don’t want to publicly fail in front of hundreds of readers who I respect and admire. Thanks for the motivation! 🙂
Second, and more importantly, I wanted to get you thinking about issues or problems in your own life that need some sort of solution. Too often we sweep our problems under the rug because we’re too busy or scared to deal with them. Then someday, when we shed the competing tasks and responsibilities that used to drown out our problems (a.k.a. retirement) those problems come bubbling to the surface.
Rather than enjoying a meaningful, rewarding retirement we spend our time trying to salvage our marriage, get in shape, recover from a preventable illness, mend neglected relationships or figure out what we really want out of life. Don’t ignore your problems. They’re only going to get worse.
Is there something you need to fix? Start down that path today. If I can help, just let me know how.
Photo by Laura Gilmore. Used under Creative Commons License.
“Stuff You Should Know” is one of my favorite podcasts. Hosted by Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant, the show educates you on the basics of just about any topic in around 30 minutes.
I was listening to the episode on coffee recently when Josh mentioned that one of the side effects of a good cup of Joe is that it can help reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
As I’m sure you know, Alzheimer’s is one of those nasty diseases where we don’t really understand the cause and there is no cure. One in 8 older Americans has Alzheimer’s and it’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
Nothing can ruin retirement faster than a fatal diagnosis, so if there’s something I can do to minimize my chances of getting an incurable, brain-wasting disease, I’m all ears.
While there is no silver bullet, foods that are high in certain vitamins (B, C, D, and E), antioxidants, monounsaturated fats and Omega 3s have all shown some effectiveness in minimizing the risk of Alzheimer’s. Here are some things to add to your diet from each category:
Foods high in antioxidants and/or Vitamins B, C, D, E,
- Blueberries, raspberries and strawberries
- Macadamia nuts
- Olive oil
- Fish (e.g. Salmon)
- Chia seeds
Disclaimer: As you no doubt already know, I’m not a doctor. Take any health advice I have to give with a grain of salt (unless of course you have high blood pressure).