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ALTHOUGH statistics about dementia can be alarming, it is reassuring to know that the majority of older adults do not have dementia and may be worrying unnecessarily about natural changes in their memory that are common with aging, but individuals should know when to seek help for cognitive problems that affect their lifestyle and loved ones, says the May 2011 issue of the Cleveland Clinic Men’s Health Advisor.

Richard Naugle, Ph.D., head of Neuropsychology in Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Psychiatry and Psychology, says, “...everybody has what they call ‘senior moments’ from time to time...and you don’t have to be old to have them.”

For most individuals, those changes begin as early as age 30, but the decline is so gradual that it goes relatively unnoticed until older age, says Dr. Naugle.

The health letter offers a number of factors that can cause you to forget something:

• Stress

• Personal relevance

• Complexity of the information

• Everyday distractions — For instance, if you’re busy or you multi-task, or else, fail to process and store information properly, you’re more likely to be distracted.

• Time — Information in your long-term memory deteriorates, especially if you do not retrieve it periodically. Besides, your brain naturally eliminates stored information you no longer need...for instance, you might remember a phone number just long enough to dial it before your brain discards it.

While maddening, these complaints, by themselves, are not necessarily indicative of dementia, adds Dr. Naugle.

Thus, the doctor advises, “When people report incidental lapses in their memory, I suggest that they relax. If you start to watch for memory lapses, you’re going to see them all the time. You can drive yourself crazy to the point that it’s all you see.”

Nevertheless, according to a report released in January, about 5 percent of Americans over age 65 reported one or more cognitive disorders, such as dementia, in 2007.

Further, a study published in September 2010 in Neurology found that among 1,969 individuals, ages 70-89, 16 percent had mild cognitive impairment (a potential precursor to Alzheimer’s disease), and the prevalence was greater in men than in women.

While most individuals who report memory problems do not have dementia, on the flip side, many of those with early dementia fail to recognize any cognitive problems.

“Nobody wants to admit they have a problem,” says Dr. Naugle.

“If you’re having trouble getting things done...such as, managing your finances, remembering how to get to familiar places or remembering information that you should know...it’s time to get checked out.”

Memory decline does not necessarily mean that you’re destined for dementia.

For instance, a number of conditions that are treatable may cause dementia-like symptoms...these include Vitamin B12 deficiency, thyroid disorders, severe dehydration and normal pressure hydrocephalus (an increase in cerebrospinal fluid I the brain).

Also, vision and hearing difficulties, sleep disorders, pain, anxiety and depression may affect your cognitive health.

Treating such conditions can result in improvement.

In addition, certain cardiovascular risk factors that adversely affect your heart health...such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and smoking...which raise your risk of heart attack and stroke, appear to increase your odds of vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, as well.

The following memory problems which are persistent or interfere with your daily life are warning signs that you should seek medical evaluation:

• You have trouble managing finances

• You get lost in familiar places

• You have problems following directions

• You ask the same questions repeatedly

• You have trouble remembering how to do things you’ve done before

• You fail to recognize familiar people

• You have problems performing tasks that involve sequence, such as following a recipe

• You show increasingly poor judgment

• You lose your train of thought easily or have difficulty following conversations

The health letter recommends self-help measures to combat the cardiovascular risk factors for dementia:

• Exercise — Get at least 30-45 minutes of daily moderate-intensity aerobic exercise...such as walking, biking or swimming...on at least five days a week. A study published online on Jan. 31 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that walking the equivalent of six to nine miles a week reduced the risk of memory problems by half among 99 individuals.

• Diet — Maintain a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and low-fat dairy products, while cutting back on saturated fat, sodium and processed foods...such as the Mediterranean-style diet that focuses on consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, olive oil and fish, all of which contain the nutrients your brain needs.

Evidence suggests that some brain “super foods” may be particularly nourishing for brain cells, which include:

a) Fatty fish — Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fatty fish (such as salmon, herring, mackerel and tuna) improve communication among brain cells (two-thirds of the brain is composed of fats);

b) Avocados — A brain booster, it contains oleic acid (an omega-9 fatty acid) which is important for brain health. Other good sources are olive and peanut oils and almonds;

c) Blueberries — Along with purple grapes and other berries with purple, black or blue skins, these berries are great sources of antioxidant vitamins and plant compounds known as phytochemicals...all of which control oxygen-free radicals that damage the brain cells;

d) Broccoli — Together with other cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, etc.), broccoli is rich in antioxidants and nutrients that help protect the brain from toxins;

e) Beans — Kidney beans and other legumes are rich in Vitamin B, valuable amino acids and antioxidants that help support better brain function. These beans provide glucose to fuel the brain, and fiber that slows the absorption of glucose, helping to maintain stable energy levels and support alertness and concentration; and

f) Spinach — Good sources of iron, spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables facilitate production of neurotransmitters involved in learning and memory. Also, spinach has antioxidant vitamins that help protect the brain.

• Mental and social activities — Staying mentally and socially active may help preserve cognition. Among the activities touted as brain boosters are crosswords, Sudoku puzzles, chess and learning a musical instrument or foreign language, as well as any other mentally stimulating activity that you enjoy. Volunteering with charities, joining a book club and getting your friends involved in your activities may also help prevent memory problems.

In conclusion, Dr. Naugle sums it up by saying, “...eat right, stay physically fit and challenge your brain is what I’d encourage you to do whether you have Alzheimer’s or if you’re still healthy, just to preserve what memory you have.”

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