As of 2015, there were approximately 47.8 million people aged 65 and older living in the United States, accounting for 14.9 percent of the population. In fact, the senior population is the fastest-growing of any demographic in the nation. The number of seniors living in the US is projected to more than double, reaching over 98 million people by the year 2060. As medical advancements continue to emerge, it’s likely that seniors will live for even longer than before.
Currently, the average life expectancy for Americans is 78.8 years. But while that might seem like good news, the truth is that longer lifespans can present certain complications, especially when it comes to long term care. Statistics show that a person turning 65 today will have a 70 percent chance of needing some type of long-term care service and support during the remainder of his or her life. And when you consider that one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, it becomes abundantly clear just how important it is to do everything you can to adequately prepare for your future needs.
Certainly, that can come down to securing your position in an assisted living retirement community and to make your healthcare wishes known to your kin. But there also may be some steps you can take to actually reduce your risk of developing diseases like dementia in the future. While there are a lot of unknowns surrounding Alzheimer’s and other cognitive disorders, a recent report found that as many as one-third of dementia cases could be prevented through lifestyle changes. There are also other factors that might make you less likely to develop these conditions. If you know how to reduce your risk and you take action early enough, you may be able to avoid becoming one of the estimated 5 million Americans who live with Alzheimer’s–a number that’s expected to nearly triple by 2060.
There is compelling evidence to suggest that a person’s level of education can have a profound effect on their risk for developing dementia later in life. A newer study conducted by the Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention and Care revealed that a person who remains in school until at least the age of 15 has a lower risk of dementia development than someone with a lack of formal schooling. In fact, British researchers found that the total number of dementia cases could be reduced by eight percent if everyone continued their formal education past this pivotal age.
This suggests that the education we receive early on in life really can prepare us for the future. In many cases, people who benefited from higher socioeconomic statuses during their childhood consequently had a lower dementia risk (since many of these individuals would have gone to and stayed in school). Those who pursue a secondary level of education are also better off, meaning that pursuing a liberal arts degree or going to graduate school can mean great things for your brain later on.
The continuation of learning and cognitive activity is also key. Staying mentally active can do wonders in protecting the mind, even in the short term. Sharpening your skills, taking up new hobbies, partaking in puzzles, learning a new language, and furthering one’s education can all preserve brain function and potentially protect against Alzheimer’s and other dementia diseases. One study conducted by the National Institutes of Health found that when older adults pursued as few as 10 mental training sessions, they improved their cognitive functioning in everyday life and actually showed lasting improvements a decade after these sessions were performed. So if you want to reduce your risk of dementia, start studying.
Hearing Loss Treatment
According to the World Health Organization, approximately 466 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss, representing over five percent of the planet’s population. While there is no direct evidence to suggest that hearing loss actually causes dementia, there is data to suggest that failing to treat hearing loss can increase your risk of developing these cognitive conditions.
Neuroscientists from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health found a link between mild cognitive impairment (a common precursor to dementia) and hearing loss. Other researchers estimated that reducing hearing loss and prioritizing hearing loss treatment, particularly during mid-life, could reduce dementia cases by approximately eight percent (provided every person who needed treatment received it).
That said, experts are careful to note that this research is still in its infancy; as yet, there’s no reason to worry that experiencing hearing loss provides definitive evidence that you’ll develop dementia. Many researchers believe that the correlation between the two may actually be the social isolation that results from losing the ability to hear properly. That’s another reason why senior socialization is so essential. Many older folks experience isolation, loneliness, and depression–and it’s very likely that these experiences can contribute to emotional and cognitive decline.
Most of us know the dangers of leading an inactive lifestyle. And yet, many of us fail to fit in the recommended amount of physical activity our bodies need to remain healthy. The US Department of Human and Health Services estimates that less than five percent of American adults participate in 30 minutes of exercise per day. And as we get older, we tend to slow down and become even less active.
But staying active is what will keep us active, in both mind and body. There’s evidence to suggest that aerobic exercise can increase the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain and thereby lower dementia risk. One smaller study conducted in 2017 found that a group of older people who had been diagnosed with an early and mild form of vascular dementia were able to significantly improve their cognitive functioning after partaking in a six-month exercise regimen three times per week.
What’s more, there’s reason to believe that maintaining a healthy weight and embracing a nutritious diet can stave off dementia. Another study conducted in 2017 found that adults who had a larger BMI in middle age were more likely to develop dementia decades later than those with a body mass index within the healthy range. Excessive weight, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure have all found to be linked to higher dementia risk. Heart-healthy diets like the Mediterranean diet may also help to protect the brain.
In the end, there’s still a lot we don’t know about dementia. There are also other factors that can’t necessarily be helped, such as inherited traits. But if you do everything you can to lead a healthy lifestyle, prioritize mental stimulation, and attend to your existing health needs now, you may be able to decrease your risk of cognitive decline later on.