Think you know the facts about growing older? Think again.
1. Myth: Dementia is an inevitable part of aging.
Fact: "Dementia should be seen as a modifiable health condition and, if it occurs, should be followed as a medical condition, not a normal part of aging," said Patricia Harris, MD, a geriatrician and associate professor at Georgetown University Medical Center. In other words, if you or your loved one becomes forgetful, it could be related to medication, nutrition or modifiable medical issues, she said. Don't assume Alzheimer's.
Just consider that when doctors examined the brain of a 115-year-old woman who, when she died, was the world's oldest woman, they found essentially normal brain tissue, with no evidence of Alzheimer's or other dementia-causing conditions. Testing in the years before she died showed no loss in brain function. Not only is dementia not inevitable with age, but you actually have some control over whether or not you develop it.
"We're only now starting to understand the linkages between health in your 40s, 50s and 60s and cognitive function later in life," said Richard Powers, MD, who chairs the medical advisory board of the Alzheimer's Foundation of America. Studies find that many of the same risk factors that contribute to heart disease—high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity—may also contribute to Alzheimer's and other dementias.
For instance, studies on the brains of elderly people with and without dementia find significant blood vessel damage in those with hypertension. Such damage shrinks the amount of healthy brain tissue you have in reserve, reducing the amount available if a disease like Alzheimer's hits, Powers says. That's important, he says, because we're starting to understand that the more brain function you have to begin with, the more you can afford to lose before your core functions are affected.
One way to dodge the dementia bullet? Exercise your body and your brain. Physical activity plays a role in reducing the risk of diseases that cause Alzheimer's. It also builds up that brain reserve.