When I was a little girl, my mom used to tell me each morning as I headed off to school: “Think Pretty.” As I became older, I came to understand that she meant that I should think about lovely things: the good - not the bad, the beautiful - not the ugly. That I should look for the “pretty” in each and every day.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about my mother lately. This year has been especially difficult, as she was recently diagnosed with dementia, which is the loss of cognitive functioning to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities. Dementia ranges in severity from the mildest stage, when it is just beginning to affect a person’s functioning, to the most severe stage, when the person must depend completely on others for basic activities of daily living. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia among older people. It's an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. For those of you with aging parents, chances are that many of you are dealing with some dementia-related challenges.
Changes in the Brain Due to Alzheimer’s Disease
Although we still don’t know how the Alzheimer’s disease process begins, it seems likely that damage to the brain starts a decade or more before problems become evident. During the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease, people don’t notice any symptoms but toxic changes are taking place in the brain. Abnormal deposits of proteins form plaques and tangles throughout the brain, and once-healthy neurons begin to work less efficiently. Over time, neurons lose their ability to function and communicate with each other, and eventually they die.
Before long, the damage spreads to the part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is essential in forming memories. As more neurons die, affected brain regions begin to shrink. By the final stage of Alzheimer’s, damage is widespread, and brain tissue has shrunk significantly.
Every 67 Seconds….
Statistically speaking, a high percentage of you or your loved ones will be touched by this pervasive disease at some time in your life. According to the Alzheimer’s Association:
- Every 67 seconds someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s and now there are more than 5 million Americans living with the disease.
- Alzheimer's disease is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States (5th for those age 65 and older.) It kills more than prostate cancer and breast cancer combined.
- Women often bear the brunt of this disease: Not only are there 2.5 times more women than men providing intensive “on-duty” care 24 hours per day for someone with Alzheimer’s, but almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women.
- Alzheimer's disease is the most expensive condition in the nation. In 2014, the direct costs to American society of caring for those with Alzheimer's will total an estimated $214 billion. Despite these staggering figures, Alzheimer’s will cost an estimated $1.2 trillion (in today's dollars) in 2050.
Memory loss is NOT a normal part of aging!
Many people I talk to seem to think that memory loss or “senior moments” are a natural part of aging. They are the source of many jokes as well as a convenient excuse to cover our memory lapses. But this is no longer a joking matter because there is new research which suggests that cognitive decline (experiencing those “senior moments”) is NOT just a “normal part of aging” but is actually linked to the same type of damage seen in more serious cases of brain disease!
“The very early mild cognitive changes once thought to be normal aging are really the first signs of progressive dementia, in particular Alzheimer’s disease.” -Robert S.Wilson, PhD, neuropsychologist at Rush University Medical Center.
This is an alarming statement! Fortunately you and I aren’t statistics…we have choices and there are many things we all can do to protect our brain and lower our risk of memory loss. The good news is that these are the same behaviors that lower the risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stroke.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are six main strategies to preserve your brain, and below are the first three. I will address the other three in a future blog post.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Think Pretty next week.