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The #1 Cause of Dementia, According to Experts

Read on to discover whether you’re at risk.

More than 55 million people worldwide suffer from dementia, "a syndrome – usually of a chronic or progressive nature – that leads to deterioration in cognitive function (i.e. the ability to process thought) beyond what might be expected from the usual consequences of biological aging," according to the World Health Organization. Signs of dementia include memory loss, becoming lost in familiar places, changes in learning or thinking and becoming confused while at home. There are a number of contributing factors that cause dementia and while there's no cure, there are lifestyle changes that help reduce the risk. Read on to learn more about dementia, what the leading cause is and how to help prevent it—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Alzheimer's Disease is the Leading Cause of Dementia

The diagnosis Alzheimers disease written on a clipboard

Alzheimer's is a progressive disease of the brain that causes memory loss and can and a decline in social, thinking and behavioral skills. According to Dr. Wally Wazni, Neurologist and Medical Director of the Comprehensive Stroke Center with Dignity Health St. Mary in Long Beach, it's the leading cause of dementia. He explains, "The most common cause of cognitive decline in adults age 35 and older is Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's is usually a disease of the elderly and the chances of getting it increases tremendously with age over 65 years. For people between 65 and 70 the risk is 2 in every 100 people have dementia. As we age, our risk roughly doubles every five years. This means that someone over 90 years old has a 33 % chance of having dementia." He adds, "We have been making strides at treatment for Alzheimer's disease. Most notably is Aducanumab – is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of mild Alzheimer's. Aduhelm is an amyloid beta-directed antibody indicated to treat Alzheimer's disease. Aducanumab reduces amyloid beta plaques, the accumulation of which is a defining pathophysiological feature of Alzheimer's disease. While Aduhelm appears highly effective in reducing brain amyloid levels, it is uncertain that patients will actually benefit clinically from treatment. In addition, aducanumab has known risks that require close monitoring with clinical and imaging assessments." Keep reading to see if you're at risk.

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Risk Factors

Fill out the family history section in the medical questionnaire

While there are some changes we can make to reduce the risk of dementia, there are some things we can't. Dr. Parham Yashar, MD FACS FAANS Board Certified Neurosurgeon at Dignity Health Northridge Hospital says, "When trying to minimize risk factors for dementia, it is important to separate modifiable risk factors from those that you cannot change. For example, age, family history or other genetic disorders such as Down's syndrome are not modifiable. On the other hand, diet and exercise, monitoring your health—addressing high blood pressure, diabetes, quitting smoking, obtaining adequate sleep, avoiding head trauma, maintaining an appropriate intake of daily vitamins—are factors that you can control to mitigate risk of dementia." He adds, "There are no 'cures' for dementia, however there are many ways to try to prevent or at least minimize the risk of developing dementia, in addition to the modifiable risk factors discussed above. The simplest thing you can do is: Stay Active! Maintain physical activity and exercise; keep your mind active by reading, learning new tasks, performing puzzles, and other brain teasers; keep a healthy diet and make sure to obtain enough rest and consistent and uninterrupted sleep; and treat any underlying medical conditions you may have with the help of your primary care doctor."

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Prevention and Lifestyle Changes That Help Reduce the Risk of Dementia

nurse disinfecting male arm before blood

With a few key lifestyle changes, we can reduce the risk of dementia according to Dr. Michael Hirt, Board Certified Nutrition from Harvard University and Board Certified in Internal Medicine and is with The Center for Integrative Medicine in Tarzana California. He also states that s Alzheimer's is the number cause of dementia, "which is linked to a gene (ApoE4) which in turn can be activated by excessive dietary sugar, fat, and alcohol. A simple blood test can determine if you have this genetic variant, and if you do, changing your diet today can change your destiny tomorrow." He recommends the following:

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Activity Matters

older woman doing a puzzle

Regular use of your brain and body can both be very helpful to keeping your mind sharp as you age. Exercising your brain with puzzles, math games, memory games and vocabulary games are fun and effective ways to encourage your nerves to connect better and improve thinking and memory. Regular exercise has also been shown to improve brain function as well. In fact, nothing else…no pills or potions…has ever been shown to be as good for you as regular exercise. This goes beyond just being 'active' walking around in your daily life or home. Exercise means dedicating a specific amount of time (at least 30 minutes) to a particular activity. This can include dancing, walking, chair exercises, or more aggressive forms of exercise. Want to add ten years to your lifespan? Daily exercise for 1 hour, 7 days a week, is the only thing ever shown to extend life, even more than intermittent fasting.

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Food Matters

salmon and nuts omega 3 rich foods

The brain is mostly made of DHA fat, the same omega-3 fat that is found in fish and fish oil supplements. Eating a diet rich in omega-3s or taking a fish oil (or vegan version) will help give your brain what it needs for maintenance and repairs. The arteries that feed the brain are also susceptible to plaque and related vascular diseases, just like the heart. So a heart-healthy low fat Mediterranean type diet will also keep the smaller but critical arteries in your brain wide open and capable of delivering the oxygen and nutrients your brain needs to remember where you left your keys…every time. Lastly, here's what you probably already know, that sugar, alcohol, pesticides and chemical additives are some of the common poisons that age our brains. This country was built on the motto that if a little is good, then more has to be better. Unfortunately, this axiom does not apply to these substances that become more toxic the more you ingest. So, eat freshly prepared, organic food as much as possible and seek out restaurants and venues that serve the same. As for sugar and alcohol, keep these toxins in check if you can, and if you cannot, then stop them completely if even a little triggers unhealthy binges.

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Stress Matters

or woman with papers or bills and calculator writing at home

Finally, nothing (and I mean nothing) will make you 'sicker quicker' than stress. Humans are built for a bucolic lifestyle in the hills tending our herds and gardens. When threatened, we have the physiological muster to surge our energy and strength to fight or flee. But, too many of us live in this heightened state of stress for days, weeks, months and years on end. This kind of stress will make you sick in ways that no other poison can. So, find your happy place; go there frequently. Meditate, pray, unplug, sing, dance, and laugh as often as you can. These are the strongest 'drugs' I can prescribe…and they cost nothing but your attention to them."

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Dementia Can Be Hard To Diagnose Early On

A mature man having a medical exam done in the doctors office.

Dr. William Nields, medical director of Cognitive Health Centers in Sarasota, Florida told US News, "The symptoms are very subtle in the beginning and almost unnoticeable. For that reason, most people are not diagnosed with Alzheimer's or one of the other many brain diseases that causes dementia until they've already progressed into their mid-stage." He also stated, "In the case of Alzheimer's Disease, beta amyloid plaques (tangles of proteins that interfere with normal brain functioning) may be building up in the brain 20 years before dementia, and years before symptoms are even present," Nields says. Dementia is typically diagnosed after "significant cognitive decline has occurred and a person has difficulty caring for themselves."

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When To See A Doctor

Senior Hispanic Man Suffering With Dementia Trying To Dress

Since the symptoms of dementia can be mild in the beginning, it can be challenging to know when to see a doctor, but Dr. Parham Yashar, MD FACS FAANS Board Certified Neurosurgeon at Dignity Health Northridge Hospital says, "if a patient or their family member notices a cognitive change, it is always a good idea to have an evaluation by a physician to discuss the symptoms. Best to start with your primary care physician or a neurologist for further and more detailed evaluation. Presently only a few treatments are available for Alzheimer's dementia. Recently the FDA approved a new drug called aducanamab which is an infusion therapy that targets the beta amyloid microscopic protein in the brain. This drug was shown in clinical trials to delay the clinical decline of people living with early Alzheimer's disease. Other options include cholinesterase inhibitors such as donepezil, and glutamate regulators such as memantine." And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather