Mental health is probably one of the most troubling concerns of the elderly and those that care for them. While losing one’s physical health can be deeply upsetting and life-altering, it is not as fear-inducing as losing one’s mental capabilities. Some amount of mental regression is expected the longer that one lives, but diseases like Alzheimer’s are well outside that scope. Severe mental degeneration can leave a person unable to care for themselves, physically or emotionally, and without any memories to inform them of who they were. This is a harrowing prospect for anyone, but specifically for women.
Related: How-to Talk to People with Dementia
Women are more likely to suffer from this mental degeneration. Conventional wisdom says that since women live longer on average, that accounts for their increased risk. After all, if mental degeneration worsens as you age, and women live longer, it only make sense that more women than men would fall victim to a failing brain. However, recent research suggests that that is not the whole story. Women are uniquely susceptible to to Alzheimer’s, which accounts for 60-70% of all dementia cases. Part of the answer seems to be hormones. Too much estrogen too late is linked to dementia, but there is a supposed “critical window” in a woman’s life where hormone replacement therapy can reduce the risk of dementia. Problem is, no one is quite sure where that window opens and when it closes, and if you take too much too late, it can have the opposite effect.
So, how can you remain mentally fit and avoid becoming part of the statistic? Or how can your mother, grandmother, or other relative avoid losing their independence and memories?
It’s not surprising to anyone that diet has an effect on your mental health. Supplying our bodies with the right stream of nutrients is essential to maintaining all aspects of performance; additionally, overindulging in junk food can lead to issues that show themselves inwardly and outwardly. As if you needed one more reason to eat healthy, diet is instrumental to preventing dementia. One study found that those who consistently ate healthy at 50 were 90% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s. Additionally, eating healthy can reduce your risk of stroke, which in turn lowers your risk of vascular dementia as well.
There are several healthy diets that you can follow, but most professionals recommend some version of a Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats. One example is the MIND diet; it’s been shown to reduce risk of dementia by up to 50%. Considering that such a diet benefits many other aspects of your health as well, tubs of ice cream and mountains of potato chips look significantly less appealing.
Just like a physical muscle, the brain needs exercise too, or it will atrophy. Studies examining this claim typically encourage playing games or gardening, but it’s not limited to just those activities. Any task that challenges your brain and keeps you occupied is mentally stimulating. Puzzles, video games, learning a new language, cooking, charity events, playing
Of course, working is the greatest mental stimulation that most Americans get. Our professional lives are a source of social interaction, stress, and continuous challenges. Many abandon this source at precisely the age when they need it most. Retiring later does prevent dementia, particularly if the job is mentally challenging. However, what about those who have already retired?
Retirees can take on projects to keep themselves busy, whether that mean volunteering at church, taking up an intensive hobby, or starting a side business. Seeing as technology has revolutionized small business, seniors would have the opportunity to learn additional skills as well, for the benefit of the business. Seniors don’t have to haul themselves into an office everyday or interrupt their day to do business; instead, it can all be done on mobile devices.
Part of the problem with retiring is that it often encourages a sedentary lifestyle. While you’ve certainly earned a break, keep in mind that you need to be active in order to be healthy. Doctors recommend 30 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least three times a week.
Older women might have to alter their fitness regimen as time goes on. Conditions like osteoporosis can affect the effectiveness and safety of any exercise program. Make sure that you discuss with your doctor to what extent you should exert yourself. Injuring yourself severely will only prevent you from exercising regularly.
Be aware of the symptoms of dementia; as with most diseases, the earlier you catch it, the better chance there is of treating it effectively. Furthermore, you want to have plenty of time to come to terms with the illness and for you to decide how you want to proceed. There are various types of care centers or you might arrange to live with a family member. Of course you ought to retain your independence for as long as possible, but when a concerned loved one tells you it’s time to let someone else take care of you, don’t fight it. You’ll have the best chance of pushing off the effects of dementia under someone else’s care. Quality health insurance for proper diagnosis and care is essential.
Dementia is a frightening reality to all too many people. While it is extremely unpleasant to consider, we have to realize that preventative measures start now. It’s never too late to start living a healthier lifestyle that will keep all of you around for years to come.
Robin Earling writes from her grandparents’ home in Washington, learning to fear dementia from personal experience and research. She hopes that one day the conflicting scientific evidence will clear to reveal a cure for this harrowing disease.