November once again ushers in not only the holiday season, but National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. Every November, I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you as we observe this period of heightened awareness for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. In fact, this November is the 36th anniversary of this designation. President Reagan, who later died of Alzheimer’s disease, initiated this month of awareness for dementia back in 1983. We have learned a great deal about dementia since then and of course, since Alzheimer’s disease was originally discovered in 1906 by Dr. Alois Alzheimer. Over 5.8 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease. It is the 6th leading cause of death in our country and someone develops the disease every 65 seconds.
So look around you this November and you will see more buildings than ever lit in purple to call attention to Alzheimer’s. Capitol domes across the nation will turn purple this month and sports venues will be bathed in purple as well to acknowledge the vast effect of dementia on American families. You may notice Mayors and Governors sporting purple scarves or ties and awareness ads on television and social media. It is hard to find anyone these days who has not been affected by dementia in their immediate or extended families or among their networks of friends and coworkers.
And so…as we take a moment to reflect on those people in our lives who have suffered from Alzheimer’s or other dementias, we can also acknowledge that optimism for a breakthrough has never been stronger. Our National Alzheimer’s Plan calls for prevention, treatment, and cure by 2025 and many in the scientific and medical fields believe this goal is attainable. I am a Public Policy Ambassador to Capitol Hill for the Alzheimer’s Association and can attest through my visits to Washington DC that this is a completely nonpartisan issue. Congress is in complete agreement about the need to eliminate Alzheimer’s disease which costs our nation $290 billion each year caring for those with dementia. Congress is allocating more and more funding each year, now providing around $2.6 billion to the National Institute of Health for dementia research.
As a reminder of why the goal for a world without Alzheimer’s is my passion, three of four parents in my immediate family were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s within a year and a half of each other. They lived for 16, 14, and 11 years with the disease and I was their family caregiver throughout our dementia journey. Our last “Lovie” left us five years ago, and I will never forget them. I will also never forget the challenges we faced together through early, middle and late stages of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
Of course with November also comes planning for Thanksgiving feasts and preparations for Christmas, Hanukah and Kwanzaa celebrations. It is a time of year when we share memories of holidays past with family and friends, but for some, those memories are difficult to recall due to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Therefore, it is only fitting that as we anticipate the upcoming holiday season, we pause in November to heighten community awareness for memory-robbing diseases and renew our pledge to fight until these conditions have been eradicated.
This November in particular, I am filled with hope that dementia itself may someday soon become a distant memory. I have never been more optimistic than I am right now that the breakthrough is on the horizon. There are more clinical dementia trials in Phase III than ever before. The scientific and medical communities are thinking outside the box with regard to research. A large pharmaceutical company has just approached the FDA for approval for a promising drug treatment. Advancements in diagnostics are making the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease a reality. We believe that one-quarter of all hospitalizations for those with dementia could be prevented by diagnosis. Our loved ones with dementia can also stay independent longer if they are reminded to take medications for other health issues and if precautions are taken to remove fall hazards from their homes.
But while we wait for the big news of a breakthrough, (when it occurs, I am throwing a party for the whole world, so you will all be invited!), it is more important than ever to understand the warning signs for dementia and the lifestyle changes we can make to reduce our risk.
The key warning signs or symptoms are:
- Memory loss
- Challenges with Problem Solving
- Difficulty Completing Familiar Tasks
- Confusion with Time or Place
- Visual or Spatial Difficulties
- Problems with Words
- Increased Problems with Misplacing Things
- Decreased or Poor Judgment
- Withdrawal from Activities
- Changes in Mood or Personality
If you see any of these signs on a regular basis in yourself or others, see a doctor immediately. While it might not be Alzheimer’s or dementia, it could be something that requires immediate attention. If it is dementia, there are many benefits to early detection and diagnosis.
And perhaps the most exciting news is that our lifestyle choices can have an impact on risk reduction or delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Adopting the following twelve lifestyle habits “will probably” influence our risk for dementia versus the “might possibly” promises of the past.
Regular Cardio Exercise – Be sure to check with your physician before beginning an exercise regimen to make sure it is safe based on your overall health.
Diet – Eating fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins vs. fatty meats, fried, sugary or salty foods. If you choose to consume alcohol, exercise moderation. Blueberries, blueberries, blueberries! A great food to fight inflammation and a great source for antioxidants.
Heart and Brain Awareness – If it’s good for your heart, it’s good for your brain. There is a correlation between cognitive decline and cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and high blood pressure, and obesity and diabetes.
Talk to Your Doctor – Ask your doctor to ask you about your cognitive health each year during your annual wellness visit or physical. 82% of older adults believe their cognition should be tested annually, yet only 16% are actually getting these tests.
Mind Your Mental Health – Discuss depression with your doctor and manage your stress. Consider meditation, yoga, or even grown-up coloring books as a way to bring peace and calm into your busy life.
Stop Smoking – There is a direct correlation between Alzheimer’s disease and smoking…enough said.
Continual Learning – Continue to learn new things. Take a class at a community college or online. Learn a musical instrument or a language.
Stimulate Your Brain – While not every brain game may have science behind it, many do. Challenge yourself with puzzles and games and pay special attention to games that exercise your peripheral vision, which is at risk for decline through cognitive impairment.
Socialize – In this day of social media, make sure you interact personally with others. Social integration is important for brain health. Volunteer, take dance lessons or join clubs.
The Importance of Sleep – Sound, natural sleep gives your brain a chance to rid itself of toxins. Remove devices from the bedroom and create a cool and dark environment to promote sleep. Some sleep aids may actually increase your risk for dementia, so check with your doctor before using medications.
Treat Hearing Loss – There is an increase in the incidence of Alzheimer’s and dementia in those with untreated hearing loss in middle age. Your brain cannot process what you never heard to begin with. See a doctor about hearing loss. There should be no stigma about hearing devices.
Protect Your Brain – As active adults, we are sliding up, down and around something summer and winter. Seatbelts, seatbelts, seatbelts! Helmets, helmets, helmets!
And as we wait for the breakthrough, it is also more important than ever to know how to get help. I have been with Mines and Associates for five years now and present a learning session called Alzheimer’s/Dementia A to Z to our client groups. I am noticing attendees of all ages in these sessions as interest is growing in how we can maintain healthy brains beginning in our 20s and 30s. I am also seeing an increase in those employees who seek coaching on the topic of Alzheimer’s/Dementia through the Employee Assistance Plan benefits that their employers provide. Mines clients can schedule free one hour sessions with me for dementia coaching as they put together plans to care for aging parents, relatives or friends.
Another organization that I am involved with is also at the forefront of trying to improve the quality of life for those living with all forms of dementia and their family care partners. I serve as the Volunteer Community Chair for Dementia Friendly Denver, a part of Dementia Friendly America, a not for profit, grassroots, all-volunteer initiative that was introduced at the White House Conference on Aging in 2015. Our volunteer team is working on eight projects in the greater Denver area and you can check them l am out at dementiafriendlydenver.org. The goal of the projects is to make our community more dementia-friendly and to reduce the stigma surrounding the topic of dementia. Our team provides a free one-hour learning session to business, government, academic, faith and community groups titled Dementia 101 – Reducing Your Risk. To schedule a free session for your group, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
And please remember that you can still enjoy the holidays if you are caring for family members with dementia. Just take the “Holiday Lite” approach. Details don’t need to be extravagant or perfect. Plan holiday activities and outings to be shorter in length. Remember that our Lovies wear out faster than we do, as an hour for us is like five hours for them. Be prepared for upsets due to the disruption of routines and provide rest periods for everyone!
And so, as we enter National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, most importantly, remember that you are not alone. Utilizing the dementia resources available through Mines and Associates can help you get organized and become knowledgeable. In addition, the Alzheimer’s Association provides a 24/7 helpline at 800.272.3900. And finally, for all of you who are caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, be sure to take care of yourself first! This will help you provide better care for your Lovies. I wish you a peaceful holiday season and remember that hope abounds!!!