Dementia help and advice podcast. A potential cure for dementia
I was tipped off about an Australian documentary that featured a potential cure for different forms of dementia. As unlikely as it seemed I thought I would take a look. The short item was on a regular Sunday night show screened on the Nine Network called 60 Minutes.
The latest research shows that women are more like than men to develop dementia but…. delaying the onset of dementia by 1-3 years can reduces the risks of developing the syndrome by up to 50%.
Women far more likely to suffer neurodegenerative conditions than men
Research from the Netherlands indicates that women at age 45 have a 48% lifetime risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, dementia or having a stroke. The risk for men at the same age is 12% lower at 36%. The headline findings of this large scale study are
“from age 45, 1 in 2 women and 1 in 3 men are likely to develop dementia, Parkinson’s or have a stroke during their lives.”
This research draws attention to a number of important findings. It confirms that women appear to be more likely to develop dementia in later life than men, this is in line with existing predictions. Specifically that at the age of 45 women had a 26% likelihood of developing dementia, for men the probability was around 14%. That from middle age women have a 1 in 4 chance of developing dementia but for men this is about a 1 in 7 chance.
This study (Lifetime risk of common neurological diseases in the elderly population) was conducted by researchers at the University Medical Center of Rotterdam, it is regarded as so important that it has been widely reported in the media. The scale of the investigation adds great significance to the findings, the data of 12,102 individuals over a 26 years period provided that basis for the analysis. Recommendations from the report include the emphasis on preventative strategies at the level of population. This clearly supports a move to approaches able to delay the initial onset of diseases such as dementia. The statistical benefit for delaying the early stages of these conditions by 1 to 3 years, has been calculated at as reduction in lifetime risk of developing the disease of between 20% to 50%.
Put simply, delay the conditions leading to dementia, Parkinson’s and stroke for 1 to 3 years and your chances of ever developing the diseases may be reduced by up to half. This illustrates the basic principle that even small changes to lifestyle can lead to fundamental improvements in your lifelong health trajectory. Prevention of dementia should begin in your 40s not 60s. There appears to be little doubt that stopping or slowing neurodegenerative processes offers significant benefits to individuals and society as a whole.
Dementia has to be challenged on three levels. It presents challenges to current and future societies
Dementia is much more than an illness
The slogan smash dementia is both dramatic and provocative but it contains three important messages that cannot be ignored. At first sight ‘smash dementia’ might appear not to make sense, dementia is a syndrome, a collection of symptoms, so how can they be smashed? The key is to think of the challenge of dementia on three different levels, firstly the current suffering caused by dementia, secondly the conditions that give rise to dementia and thirdly the concept that links old age to inevitable cognitive decline.
Smash the suffering caused by dementia
It is important to acknowledge that some people diagnosed with dementia can live long and fulfilling lives, but this is not always the case. In its advanced form dementia can lead to great suffering, both for patients as well as their friends and family. This is the aspect of dementia that requires immediate and urgent action. If you search the academic literature you will find hundreds of thousand of publish studies about or linked to dementia, and yet there is still much that is not known. More worryingly what is known is not always being communicated. Although some general ideas about how to reduce cognitive decline are shared with the wider community, the advice often lacks detail and authority.
“In 2015 over 110,000 people died of Alzheimer’s Dementia (AD) in the US, it is the sixth leading cause of death. Deaths from AD increased by 123% in the fifteen years following 2000. In contrast mortality rates linked to stroke and heart disease fell.”
Smash the conditions for dementia
Dementia is set to become one of the defining health concerns of the 21st century. In the next twenty years we expect to see the total number of people living with dementia worldwide increase three fold to 150 million. The human and economic costs of this scenario are without precedent, huge efforts are needed if society is going to cope, let alone provide appropriate levels of care. We have a conveyor belt with increasing numbers of people in cognitive decline ready to join the ranks of those already diagnosed with dementia. There is almost no information being offered to people in their 40s about what they can do to improve their brain health and lower the risks of serious cognitive impairment. What are we waiting for? We need to attack dementia, not simply upon diagnosis but at the point the syndrome begins its destructive path.
Smash the negative stereotypes of old age
When my late mother was in her early 60s, she started to describe any lapses in memory or cognitive function as ‘senior moments’. Around this time she started to use a computer and demonstrated no observable indications of cognitive decline, and yet she carried and communicated the idea that her brain was starting to become less reliable. I’m concerned that we label older people as inferior generally and that the stigma linked to dementia is a results of negative stereotypes. As a society we don’t value older people enough, we don’t recognize their skills, experience and capacities. And yet there is evidence all around us that people over the age of 65 can make significant and meaningful contributions to society. For example President Trump is 72, Bruce Springsteen 69, Queen Elizabeth II is 92 and the Emperor of Japan, Akihito is 84. This isn’t a denial of the aging process, rather a rejection of the assumption that older people can’t make valuable contributions to society.
Compassion as a central component to health and society
A presumed contributory factor in cognitive decline and poor mental health is social isolation. Perhaps humans are hard wired to live with other people, humankind has evolved in intergenerational groups. Choosing to live alone or in nuclear families is a relatively new innovation in human experience. Research has indicated that people living in social isolation have a higher risk of suffering a heart attack, stroke or becoming obese. In short if we stay socially engaged we can expect to live longer with a higher quality of life. But a recent report from Generations United and the Eisner Foundation indicated that the benefits of intergenerational care extend to young people as well as old.
Champion was a community centre in Columbus, Ohio. It has been transformed into an intergenerational enrichment and education center, where community provision for young people and the elderly have been brought together under one roof. The smart use of the physical space makes a good deal of economic sense. But perhaps the greatest benefit has been seen in changes to the lives of the users of the facilities. According to the report, older people involved in intergenerational programs;
enjoy improved health and wellbeing
feel less isolated and lonely
and participants with dementia report increased levels of engagement.
Young people and children demonstrate
increased self-regulation, empathy and improved social acceptance
In the US 89% of people think that meeting the needs of children, young people and the elderly on the same site is a good idea. The evidence indicates that young and old alike derive benefit from the experience and yet there are only 105 intergenerational shared sites across the US. To put the potential of the concept into context there are 11,000 registered Senior Centers across the country.
In addition to the value of intergenerational programmes, this study reinforces the widespread evidence that brain health is linked to a number of lifestyle factors. That having to care for and engage with others enriches us in a concrete way. This supports research illustrating that compassion may be a crucial component in maintaining healthy and productive cognitive activity.
Meditation can support a healthy brain and limit age related cognitive decline.
Help shape your own future
The brain reacts to everything it comes into contact with, this includes stimulus from the senses and internal processes such as those created during meditation. Recent scientific studies indicate that brain structure and function can be positively meditated by methods such as Brain Renewal Meditation (BRM).
One of the big deals with cognitive decline is we don’t really understand how it works. There is of course an inevitability that human brain performance must eventually decline, it is unrealistic to assume brain structure can remain intact for eternity. But as a command and control system the human brain is unrivaled in the universe. We are currently unable to count the billions of neurons in a human brain, and mankind still doesn’t have the computing power to run a biologically reliable digital simulation of our brain, even if such a model could be created. What we do know is that the brain is able to develop new function and structure (plasticity) and there is some evidence that new neurons can be generated in the adult hippocampus (neurogenesis).
The ability of the brain to restructure makes understanding brain aging particularly problematic. Structures are continually changing, new functions require support and obsolete functions can fall into decay. These changes take place against a backdrop of an incalculable amount of stimulus, almost everything we experience or think about can have an impact on the brain. The average rate in the reduction of human cognitive function is generally referred to age related cognitive decline. The factors linked to ‘typical’ rates of decline are still not fully understood and the nuanced way that structures change and interact is far from clear.
The idea that from the age of thirty adults lose a little bit more of cognitive function every year is completely wrong. Whilst cognitive decline is correlated with age, regional and global improvements in brain function during middle and old age have been observed.
From the point of view of meditation, we know from traditional sources and modern science that certain forms of meditation exert an effect on different regions of the human brain. Long term meditators have been found to have ‘younger’ brains than non meditators and meditation is also associated with increased cortical thickness. Meditation is not the only way of maintaining or increasing brain health but it is one of the oldest and most reliably established. The message is pretty simply, if you want to maintain or improve brain age or brain health think very seriously about meditation.
Evidence indicates that brain structure and function can be maintained and augmented through particular forms of meditation.
Taking responsibility is the key to brain health
In recent decades psychology and neuroscience have made progress in explaining brain functions and dysfunctions. But we still know far too little about how the human brain ages. In studies linked to meditation and mindfulness the vast majority of research (I’d estimate in excess of 80%) has been undertaken with participants under the age of 25. There is some research interest in people of retirement age and with people suffering from particular health problems. But if you trawl the academic databases for investigations of the effects of meditation on people in the 30 to 65 age range you will find relatively few studies and even fewer reliable conclusions. The irony of this lack of research is that this is the age at which cognitive decline is supposed to happen (from the early 30’s onward). It’s also supposed that dementia typically starts its journey in middle age, perhaps decades before the full symptoms manifest.
A concept that can be found throughout psychology and neuroscience is ‘age related cognitive decline’; the general correlation between age and brain function/structure. It is a pretty uncontroversial idea, we all carry around the stereotype that as we get older we can expect to experience ‘senior moments’, a lowering in cognitive ability. I’m not going to dispute that this does appear to be the pattern. But my experience of meditation is that the rate of cognitive decline is flexible. I’ve seen the transformation in people’s ability to think, problem solve and remember. There is also some evidence from neuroscience to support the premise that decline in cognitive function can be influenced by a range of activities, meditation in particular. This is not to say that meditation may keep your brain forever young, rather that you have a degree of control over how your own brain ages.
Whilst certain forms of meditation do appear to be linked to improved cognitive function, the neuroscience is at a preliminary stage. It’s clear that different forms of meditation have different effects, and meditation isn’t the only thing we can we can do to influence the development of brain function and structure. It should always be considered that just as some activities appear to support brain rejuvenation, others have the opposite effect. Anyone over the age of 30 is likely to benefit from maintaining, and where possible increasing cognitive function, meditation however is a cornerstone of this process. Keeping your body in good shape takes some time, effort and commitment, this is also true of mind training