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Sunday, January 15, 2006


This is my newspaper column for this week - health focused... and a serious health issue at that. Anyone not know someone with dementia?


It’s Alzheimer Awareness Month and 2006 marks 100 years since Dr. Alois Alzheimer identified the disease that now bears his name. The Alzheimer Society of BC is organizing events this month, including the Walk for Memories on January 22. They provide many services, such as co-coordinating nearly 100 BC support groups for caregivers and for people in the early stages of dementia. (For information - www.alzheimerbc.org )

When this disease comes up in conversation, I’m used to two different responses. The first is an uneasy humour – for example, jokes that ask about the benefits of having Alzheimer’s disease (you’re always meeting new people, you never watch re-runs on TV, you hide your own Easter eggs and so on…) The second is a reverent pause and a sense of caution or even avoidance in discussing Alzheimer’s disease. For some, it’s just too frightening or too close-to-home to easily talk about.

What is this illness - and is there anything you can do to prevent its onset? Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. Dementia is an umbrella term for various types of brain diseases that result in memory loss, confusion, behavioural and emotional changes. It is not a part of normal aging. While there are some cognitive changes associated with simply getting older, such as slower processing of information, dementia is a disease.

Many of us will live with dementia or support a loved one who lives with dementia. Based on information provided by the Canadian Study of Health and Aging, it’s estimated that 61,000 British Columbians have dementia (41,000 women and 20,000 men).

Media stories about the latest research into Alzheimer’s disease often relate to understanding its causes or seeking improved treatment or a cure. There has been less attention paid to a new area of science that indicates there are things a person can do to reduce the likelihood of developing the illness. Elisabeth Antifeau is the Clinical Lead for Dementia for Interior Health. According to her, “There is a growing body of evidence that modifiable lifestyle risks such as smoking, excess alcohol, and inactivity are associated with increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia in older age.”

For example, it’s known that there is a link between dementia and cardiovascular disease. The connection between heart disease and onset of dementia means that what’s good for your heart…is also good for your brain. The not-so-good news is that if you’re an overweight couch potato, who loves to drink, smoke and eat unhealthy snacks – you’re at increased risk on both counts.

Smoking is associated with greater cognitive decline - it’s a tough addiction to break and now brain health is another reason to quit. Regular exercise can help to keep your weight and blood pressure down - both are risk factors for Alzheimer's disease and related dementias. A healthy, sensible diet is good for your heart and circulation. High cholesterol is thought to lead to stroke and brain-cell damage.

Elisabeth Antifeau notes, “There’s also a connection between regularly engaging in mental and social activities as a strategy to reducing dementia. Expand your hobbies, learn new skills and continue with life-long learning. Mental exercise is valuable – reading, playing cards, chess, crosswords…all of these give your memory and thought processes a workout. It’s also useful to maintain active social networks, as social disengagement is a risk factor for cognitive decline, especially in the elderly.”

There is much more we need to know about the causes of dementia and it’s a complex subject. Do we know how to fully prevent it? No. Do we have cure? No.

However, there is enough information today to know that a healthy, active lifestyle (mentally and physically) is valuable – it’s good for your brain health and may contribute to preventing dementia.

Interesting and well-written, as always.
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Gary, thank you for writing an insightful piece on Alzheimers. It is the disease I'm most afraid of suffering - I completely related with the character of Iris in the movie by the same name. Anyway, thank you for listing the possible factors and thank to Cym as well.

Thanks for the posting which I found very interesting.

The latest research on the brain I thought seems to suggest it need not deteriorate as we get older, as was once thought, but is capable of renewed rigour, dependant upon how much we use it.
What do you think of this proposition ?. As a young whippersnapper of 54 years young !!! I thought you might not need too much convincing over a drink !!.
Seriously I would be very interested in your views. And by the way do you feel any less intelligent as you get older ?. Rather do you think you figure things out easier ?
Has You IQ increased, decreased ,or stayed the same ? or is it all irrelevant.

Hence whilst you mention the benefits of hobbies to engage the mind in mental activity , as a more powerful preventative measure I thought maybe it’s more the extent you engage in the rigors of thinking and brain stimulation.

Activities requiring both hemispheres and frontal lobe function, the executive functions, being the sort of activities to be more effective.

Hence I think in the early stages of dementia it's the frontal lobes and “consciousness” are the first to be effected although not always diagnosed. Prominent leaders come to mind !!……..What do you think ?
Sorry about your Grandfather Cym - it's a very sad way to go (for most).

Good questions ... and points everyone. I'm not an expert, but I can tell you from the science I looked at that there are some factors that are certainly not lifestyle: genetic makeup, environment (aluminum is less a culprit than lead and some others from what I saw); other medical conditions (as in the article). As with most diseases, the social context is a big issue (not for your dad it seems Cym) - in other words, if you're poor, have low education, socially excluded - your chances for Alzheimer's disease go up, as they do for heart disease, diabetes etc. (It's not a personal choice for many - especially in the first 6 years of life). For example, there is a study that indicates education level is a factor in liklihood of getting dementia.

There is no single cause it seems - yet as I said in the article, there is definite and clear evidence (and some indirect) about the impacts of poor diet, smoking, obesity and lack of brain use... all being risk factors.

Lindsey, there is research around strong exercising of the brain being a deterrent - Sudoku is better than television! As for frontal lobes etc. - you know more than I do!

If any of you want me to email you some papers that I looked at on this, just let me know ockenden@netidea.com
Gary, I came across this article. It could someday be a bizarre(?) solution(?) to dementia.
Thanks Gary. It's the illness that I fear most, I think. I would not want to live like that.

I'm 67 now and I like to think I'm doing just fine but I'd be the last to know, wouldn't I.
Vee, that is indeed weird! I guess if he gets dementia, he won't even know what the database is, let along all the information on him in it...

I'm not sure I want my life so carefully recorded... Interesting!

Granny - it's pretty scary. My friend John lost his dad to Alzheimers - his dad lived 14 years with it, the last 10 without recognizing John. "It was as if he died twice..." (from John)
How strange that more than twice as many women as men are affected in B.C. I wonder if that's a standard ratio across the country? And I wonder why that is.
Usually it's about 65% women in Canada. There are some studies looking into why, but one clear reason is you outlive us guys by about 7-8 years and the longer one lives, the higher the liklihood for dementia.

It could be a coping mechanism for puttin up with men... (just kidding of course).

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