Memory declines as we age, but most people will never experience the severe neuronal loss of dementia.
“The Aging, Demographics and Memory Study” on the prevalence of dementia concluded that 13.9 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 71 has some form of dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease accounting for just less than 10 percent, says brain researcher Carol Barnes.
“That means 86 percent of us age normally.”
The likelihood of dementia increase as people age, hitting 1 in 3 by age 85.
Barnes, director of the University of Arizona’s Mc-Knight Brain Institute, has studied the aging brain for more than four decades. She turned 65 last year. “Now I am the people I study and it’s like, ‘This really isn’t so bad.’”
She is an advocate for aging normally and well.
Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are a “horrible problem,” she says. “There is nothing I can think of worse than your memories being taken from you.”
But she also believes that focusing only on dementia neglects the problems of a larger population.
“To me, focusing on normal aging is to focus on the largest body of people that is experiencing some sort of memory decline.”
“It makes me angry that it has taken so long for anybody to care about the rest of us. We’re here and we want to optimize our chances for enjoying cognitive health.”
While Barnes says nothing can prevent dementia, there are ways of delaying it — and even more ways to ward off the cognitive decline of normal aging.
“Exercise, even for Alzheimer’s patients. It doesn’t prevent it, but it might delay the onset.
“There are many things that can potentially slow the progression — diet, exercise, good social structure and lifelong learning.”
She is not convinced that brain-training games help.
“Beware of getting sold a bill of goods. You do crossword puzzles everyday, you get really, really good at crossword puzzles. So if you like it, great. You do these brain-training games and you like to compete with yourself, well, then you’re better on those games.”
At McKnight, researchers are seeking a more holistic approach, she says. “What we’re looking for in terms of cognitive strategies or behavioral therapies to improve cognition is for a training program that generalizes — so that you’re not just good at what you’re being trained on.
“Playing with your grandkids is better than buying a brain game. I recommend that more because it’s both social and stimulating cognitively.
“Then, of course, there is the diet prescription for dark chocolate with all the flavonoids. Caffeine is also a good mental stimulant, if your stomach can take it. So you don’t have to feel guilty having a cup of coffee with your chocolate cake.”
No matter what you do, you are going to lose some cognitive ability as you age, Barnes says.
“Some forms of memory are clearly altered as we grow older, and it doesn’t just happen at 65. Some changes in working memory happen as early as your 30s and 40s.”
Most of us cope with it, she says, and age imparts some advantage. You might not be able to recall that word on “the tip of your tongue,” but you’ve amassed a big vocabulary over the years. You’ll find a substitute.
If those memory lapses impede daily life, you need to see your doctor, she says. It may be a sign of dementia — or something much simpler, and correctable.
“People very often fear that they are dementing, and really all they need to do is have their thyroid adjusted, their B vitamins adjusted. Get your (doctor) to do a good blood workup, and some of these things are instantly reversible.”
Barnes takes a daily dose of ibuprofen to counter brain inflammation, but warns that anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) or naproxen (Aleve) have other effects and that some inflammation in response to disease is beneficial. “You need a nimble immune system to fight off invaders,” she says.
Discuss such things with your doctor.
She definitely recommends wearing a helmet when doing any potentially dangerous task, such as skiing or bicycling. “If you have an unconscious period of two minutes after you’re 50, that’s one of the best indicators, or risk factors, for Alzheimer’s disease. So you do really want to protect that head.”
The aging population enjoys one big advantage, demonstrated in various animal studies and human surveys:
“Older individuals as a group tend to discount the negative and focus more on the positive,” Barnes says.
Some might call that wisdom, and while Barnes would love to embrace what she calls “the one positive stereotype about older people,” she has found no data to back up that claim. “There are unwise older people and wise younger people,” she says.
“I do think people develop wise ways,” she says, “but there is no good, empirical support for wise aging.”