You walk into a room to visit someone you’ve known and loved all your life. They look up, right at you, but don’t recognize you. Their memories have vanished, and you are heartbroken. What if there were simple ways to prevent this tragedy? Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are not only sad but also lingering. The victims can exist in an empty fog for years before reaching the end of their lives. This is a difficult experience for them and a terrible burden for caregivers.
Remarkable discoveries are showing that it is possible to delay the onset of dementia for years and, in many cases, avoid cognitive disease entirely. No, this isn’t the story of a new medication. Nor am I out to sell a dubious miracle cure. The good news is that simple lifestyle adjustments enable a large percentage of people to steer away from mental decline.
The promising way to counteract cognitive loss is to keep your brain stimulated. Doctors with the Memory and Aging Project at Rush Hospital in Chicago studied 900 older adults over a seven-year period. They found that people in that group who had a strong sense of purpose in their lives had double the likelihood of remaining free of Alzheimer’s than those who had a low sense of purpose.
Exercising your mind vigorously also pays great dividends. A good workout for your brain can be learning a new skill, developing a foreign language or practicing a musical instrument. The activity needs to be something stretching, more than playing crossword puzzles. Pursuing intellectual activities can push back Alzheimer’s Disease by years even among people who have a genetic risk for the disease. After studying nearly 2,000 older people for a decade, Mayo Clinic forecast a 43% reduced risk of Alzheimer’s by 2050 among those who keep their minds active.
This topic is covered in more detail in chapter 6 of the new book THRIVE in RETIREMENT.