It can be heartbreaking to watch a loved one suffer from dementia. Whether that person is a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, or friend, caregivers may feel that the person they once knew is slipping away. What makes the disease even more frustrating is that there isn’t much information on what causes the condition. Furthermore, there isn’t much information available on how to prevent the onset of dementia. This may make some feel helpless in the present dealing with friends or family suffering from dementia, and hopeless for the future as aging begins to take its toll.
It’s normal for memory to decline a bit. Things such as the items on a forgotten grocery list, where the car keys are, and other short term memory tasks may grow increasingly difficult. These difficulties are typical with aging; Alzheimer’s and dementia, however, are far more detrimental to one’s life than the difficulties with memory that others face.
It's also important to note that, while often viewed as one condition, Alzheimer’s and dementia are not the same. Both do have the same symptoms, and are often used synchronously. Dementia is the general term used to describe cognitive difficulties such as memory and impaired functioning in regards to performing daily activities. Rather, Alzheimer’s is a specific type of dementia. And, importantly, dementia is a syndrome while Alzheimer’s is a disease. Syndromes are groups of symptoms that are not specifically classified into one disease title. Alzheimer’s can be a cause of dementia, or someone can have more than one type of dementia. Alzheimer’s also isn’t the only disease that can cause dementia. Other commonly associated conditions include Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease. While the symptoms will be very similar, each of these diseases actually cause damage to different sets of brain cells. It’s important to know what exactly you’re dealing with when a loved one begins to show signs of one of these conditions.
Though the specific risk factors are still unclear, researchers do understand the biological mechanisms behind dementia. Vascular dementia is what most people think of when they have relatives suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s. The most telling symptom of vascular dementia is the decline in cognitive skills and function, especially memory. Vascular dementia is caused by an interruption in the brain’s blood supply, which in turn limits the nutrients being delivered to brain cells. Without the necessary nutrients, the brain cells begin to die off.
One way in which the blood supply to the brain can become hindered is by atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is what occurs when the blood vessels inside the brain become clogged by fatty acids. These narrowed vessels restrict blood flow to the brain, which damages the brain cells and can lead to vascular dementia.
There’s multiple factors that can cause atherosclerosis, as there is more than one risk factor for developing dementia. But, one common thread between the two is high blood pressure.
Evidence of a relationship
Researchers have been investigating the relationship between high blood pressure and dementia for decades. This study, recently published in Neurology, began back in 1964. Researchers tracked over 5,000 subjects from a healthcare delivery system in the 1960's and 70's who were still members in 1996. This type of longitudinal study is a big undertaking, but extremely important when it comes to diseases such as dementia that occur later in life. Tracking participants over time is the best way to see what may cause the condition, other than the risk factor of simply aging.
In the case of this study, the researchers were specifically looking at hypertension as a risk factor for dementia. Of the 5,646 study participants, 532 were ultimately diagnosed with dementia. Interestingly, they found that the age at which someone has hypertension can make a big impact on dementia risk. The study results showed that there is no associated risk of dementia with having high blood pressure in early adulthood, which in this study is classified as being in your 30's. However, high blood pressure during mid adulthood (in your 40s), correlated to a 65% increased risk of developing dementia. But, this risk only applies to women. Men in the study showed no increased risk of dementia with high blood pressure in either early or mid adulthood. However, as the senior author Rachel A. Whitmer noted, other studies have found a relationship between men with high blood pressure in their 50s and later dementia. This study only measured blood pressure during the participants’ 30's and 40's.
Mitigate your risk
One of the scariest things about dementia is that it may seem like there’s no way to stop it. But, studies like this show that there are ways that you can proactively mitigate your risk of dementia later in life. By keeping your blood pressure down, you avoid increasing your risk of developing dementia in the future, especially if you are female.
According to the CDC, 1 in 3 American adults are living with hypertension. And, an additional 1 in 3 have prehypertension, in which their blood pressure is elevated above normal levels, yet not in the official range of being classified as high blood pressure. If you’re in either of these categories, or even if you just want to maintain a healthy blood pressure, there’s multiple things you can do to achieve these goals.
One of the first things to do is to quit smoking, if you are a smoker. High blood pressure is essentially caused by the narrowing of your arteries since not as much blood can travel through them. One of the long term side effects of tobacco is just this: narrowing your arteries. By giving up cigarettes, you’ll stop this process and the consequential rise in your blood pressure.
Another lifestyle tip is to lose weight, if you are currently overweight. According to the American Heart Association, being overweight causes extra strain on your heart and can cause high blood pressure. The AHA recommends upping your physical activity, and eating a heart-healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts and legumes to help manage your weight and improve heart health. The association also recommends limiting sodium, a piece of advice that’s useful for everyone, regardless of weight. Because sodium is often loaded into packaged food, it’s smart to limit processed and packaged food to avoid getting tons of added sodium into your diet. It’s also wise to limit alcohol consumption, although enjoying some alcohol in moderation is okay.
One thing that most people deal with, regardless of weight or smoking or drinking habits, is stress. Stress is a normal part of life for many people, but too much of it can also contribute to high blood pressure and other health problems (as well as fuel the behaviors that are harmful to health). There’s ways to manage your stress such as time management, avoiding over commitment, and scheduling “me time” in your day to take a step back and relax. Some people also enjoy practices like yoga and meditation to help with their stress levels. Although these activities aren’t for everyone, it may be useful to give them a try.
While we can’t control the future, there are things that you can do now to lower your risk of suffering from dementia later in life. Take advantage of the information that’s available, and do what you can to lower your blood pressure. Even small changes could have a big impact down the road.