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By Dr. By Ghe Rosales-Vong, Guest columnist

As we age, concerns about cognitive health become increasingly significant. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are often discussed in relation to aging, but understanding these conditions is essential for maintaining a proactive approach to our well-being.

Dementia is a general term that describes a decline in cognitive function severe enough to interfere with daily life. It includes various symptoms, such as memory loss, and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving and language. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, comprising 60-80% of cases. It is a progressive disease that affects memory, thinking and behavior over time.

Dementia is the overarching term used to describe a set of symptoms affecting cognitive function. There are various forms of dementia, each with its own characteristics, such as vascular dementia, which results from reduced blood flow to the brain, often because of strokes; Lewy body dementia, characterized by abnormal protein deposits in the brain; and frontotemporal dementia, which primarily affects the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain.

Early detection of dementia or Alzheimer’s can significantly impact management and quality of life. Here are some common signs to be aware of:

  • Memory loss: Forgetting recently learned information, important dates or events.
  • Challenges with planning or problem solving: Difficulty concentrating, following familiar recipes or managing finances.
  • Confusion with times or places: Losing track of dates, seasons and the passage of time.
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks: Trouble driving to a known location or remembering the rules of a favorite game.
  • Misplacing things: Putting items in unusual places and being unable to retrace steps.
  • Changes in mood and personality: Becoming confused, suspicious, depressed, fearful or anxious.

Understanding the risk factors for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is crucial for seniors and their families. While some factors are beyond our control, many can be managed through lifestyle changes and proactive health care.

Here’s a close look at these risk factors:

  • Family history: If a first-degree relative, such as a parent, grandparent or sibling, has the condition, your risk is higher than those without a family history. This increased risk is due to shared genetics, environment and lifestyle factors.
  • Genetics: Certain genes are linked to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s, and genetics can influence the development of Alzheimer’s disease. The most well-known genetic risk factor is the presence of the APOE-e4 gene, which can increase the likelihood of developing the disease. This gene, however, does not guarantee you will develop Alzheimer’s, just as not having it does not ensure that you will not get the disease.
  • Lifestyle and heart health: Conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, as well as lifestyle factors like smoking and inactivity, can increase the risk. Chronic high blood pressure can damage brain blood vessels, diabetes can lead to inflammation and vessel damage, and high cholesterol can cause plaque buildup in brain arteries, increasing stroke and dementia risk. Smoking reduces blood flow to the brain, heightening cognitive decline risks, while physical inactivity is linked to higher Alzheimer’s risk because it impedes healthy blood flow and brain cell growth.

Taking steps to maintain a healthy lifestyle can help reduce your risk. Here are some tips:

  • Stay physically active: Regular exercise boosts blood flow to the brain. Simple activities like walking, gardening or doing tai chi for 30 minutes a day can significantly improve overall well-being.
  • Eat a balanced diet: Focus on eating various fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats. Berries such as blueberries and strawberries, for example, are rich in antioxidants that protect brain health. Leafy green vegetables such as spinach and broccoli are packed with vitamins and minerals that support cognitive function. Fish, especially fatty fish like salmon or sardines, are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for brain health.
  • Stay mentally active: Engaging in activities that stimulate your mind is vital for keeping your brain sharp. Try solving puzzles like Sudoku, reading your favorite books, or learning new skills like knitting or cooking for at least an hour a day. These activities can help delay cognitive decline.
  • Stay socially connected: Maintaining strong social connections is important for mental health. Spend time with family and friends, join community groups or participate in social activities.
  • Manage chronic conditions: Control conditions like diabetes and hypertension. Regular visits with your health care provider, taking prescribed medications and supplements, and following recommended lifestyle changes can help you manage these conditions effectively.

If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s, it’s essential to seek medical advice. Early diagnosis can aid in managing the condition and planning. Aging is a natural part of llife, and while these can be daunting topics, understanding these conditions is the first step toward managing them effectively and navigating this stage of life with confidence.

Dr. Ghe Rosales-Vong specializes in family medicine and works with diverse patients on a variety of medical issues. By working together, he helps his patients reach their goals and improve their health. When reviewing test results, he reminds patients that any improvements in their health reflect the hard work they’ve done at home. Rosales-Vong speaks fluent Spanish, as well as conversational Cantonese. At MemorialCare Medical Group Westminster, he helps treat a variety of adult and pediatric non-life-threatening emergencies, in addition to primary care services such as family medicine.

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