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Staying Sharp in Old Age: Which Strategies Work the Best to Help Reduce the Effects of Dementia?

Here at AgingOptions we’ve read a lot (and written a lot) about dementia. Staying as mentally sharp as we can in old age is a goal we all share, just as the fear of cognitive decline is a phobia common to most of us. Is there one single strategy to help us avoid the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia? No – but there is evidence that some approaches work better than others.

Staying Sharp Means Not Falling for New, Untested “Solutions”

That’s the conclusion from this article we recently read on the Lifehacker website. “Of all the common consequences of aging, none is more frightening than memory loss,” writes Lifehacker columnist A.A. Newton. “Even if you’ve never helplessly watched a loved one succumb to Alzheimer’s—which I promise is worse than it sounds—it’s natural to wonder if something similar could happen to you.” But because we are fearful, she suggests, we are susceptible to every sales pitch that comes down the pike, offering a game, an app, or a computer program that promises to rev up our brainpower as we get older. “Using fear to sell products may be an effective marketing strategy, but those products rarely solve any actual problems,” warns Newton. If we’re serious about staying sharp in old age, figuring out what works and what doesn’t seems like a good place to begin.

But, says the article, therein lies the problem: cognitive decline is a very complex mental condition with no clear cause or trigger.  “There’s so much about dementia that we still don’t know,” says Newton, “but one thing is certain: it’s caused by a complex confluence of many, many factors. In other words, any single prevention-minded strategy—like playing a game on your phone for a few minutes a day—probably won’t make a difference, but a multi-pronged approach just might. While the majority of risk factors are beyond our control, some of them are within our power to change, and knowing the difference is your best protection.”

Staying Sharp: Three Types of Memory Loss

As the Lifehacker piece explains, there are actually three different conditions that typically cause memory loss as we grow older: age-related cognitive decline, mild cognitive impairment or MCI, and dementia. While some symptoms overlap, there are significant differences.

  • Age-related cognitive decline refers to a more or less “normal” level of memory loss that happens as we age. “Just like our hair, skin, and muscles, brain cells age along with us, which can cause impaired cell function and communication,” says Lifehacker. Mild memory problems are usually just part of getting older.
  • Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) is more severe than normal aging but less so than dementia. “People with MCI have more memory problems than is considered normal for their age group, but can still function on their own,” says the article. “Unlike dementia, MCI typically doesn’t cause behavioral changes.”
  • Dementia is defined by the National Institute on Aging as “the loss of cognitive functioning—thinking, remembering, and reasoning—and behavioral abilities to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities.” People with dementia can experience “impaired vision, language skills, spatial reasoning, and decision-making. They may wander or get lost. Dementia can eventually cause personality changes: irritability, paranoia, hallucinations, aggression, unusual sexual behavior, and even physical violence.”

Staying Sharp: No Cure, but Hopeful Strategies

Researchers still don’t know exactly what causes dementia but there is clearly an impairment in the brain’s internal wiring that inhibits communication between brain cells. Eventually brain cells begin to die, causing the brain to shrink, a telltale sign of Alzheimer’s disease. With most dementias the damage is progressive and – for now, at least, barring a scientific breakthrough – irreversible.   “There’s no sugarcoating this,” Lifehacker warns: “Dementia cannot currently be prevented, and there’s no way to stop, reverse, or slow its progression.” Until there’s a cure, researchers hope lifestyle changes can slow or even prevent cognitive impairment. “Scientists have explored several interventions that could delay the onset of cognitive decline, but only some of them are truly promising.”  The four most common interventions so far:

  • Exercise: In spite of a huge number of studies, the ability of exercise to control dementia remains unproven, says (However, this article that we ran on the blog in January suggests the opposite.) Exercise is good for you, but a hard look at the data suggests it may not improve brain function for most people, Newton concludes.
  • Brain Training: “It’s an attractive idea,” says the article: “play enough games and solve enough puzzles and you, too, can improve your overall cognition. Unfortunately, the research doesn’t quite back it up.” There’s apparently no proof that “brain-training” games like Lumosity can stave off cognitive decline.
  • Controlling Blood Pressure: Lifehacker reports that a recent large-scale randomized study showed a measurable correlation between lowering blood pressure and reducing the risk of mild cognitive impairment. We also call your attention to this AgingOptions blog article from last August talking about the connection between dementia and high blood pressure. Treating blood pressure may actually help your cognitive health.
  • Social Interaction: This one, says the article, shows the most potential to make a difference. “Finally, and perhaps most promisingly, there is mounting evidence that social isolation is a major risk factor for cognitive decline and dementia,” Lifehacker Whatever else you do to stay mentally healthy, don’t remain socially isolated. “Taken together, the body of research on dementia intervention suggests that staying socially and physically active is our best bet for long, healthy lives,” the article concludes.

Staying Sharp with a Solid Retirement Strategy

If you’re ready for the next step in retirement planning, AgingOptions is here for you with an approach that is unique in its scope and strategy: instead of focusing piecemeal on one or two elements of a retirement plan, Rajiv Nagaich helps you look at all the key facets, including finances, medical coverage, legal protection, housing choices, even communication with your family. These are then woven together into an AgingOptions LifePlan, a powerful, individualized tool to help you create the retirement you’ve always hoped for.

Wherever you are on your retirement journey, we hope you’ll join Rajiv at a free LifePlanning Seminar, a fast-paced, information-packed session that will open your eyes to a new way of thinking about and planning for retirement. There’s absolutely no obligation. You’ll find a complete calendar of currently-scheduled seminars here on our Live Events page. It’s never too late to begin! We’ll look forward to meeting you soon at an AgingOptions LifePlanning Seminar.

(originally reported at


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