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Beyond Alzheimer’s: The Dementia Epidemic

The incidence of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is increasing worldwide, and many experts have begun to warn that an epidemic is approaching. Dementia is a decline in the ability to think, remember, and use the mind to go about one’s normal daily activities. It is estimated that dementia affects about 25 million people in the world today. This number is expected to double by 2020, and double again by 2040. The financial costs of caring for people with dementia are enormous. In the United States, Medicare payments for the care of patients with dementia were over 91 billion dollars in 2005, and these are projected to increase to 160 billion dollars by 2010. The stress and strain placed upon families and caregivers costs society an extra 36 billion dollars a year due to absenteeism and drops in productivity. The human costs are incalculable. We are only beginning to understand the tremendous emotional burden borne by spouses, daughters and sons who provide care for those afflicted by dementia.

There are many reasons why an epidemic of dementia may be starting at this particular time in history. The most obvious reason is that our population is getting older. About 96% of cases of dementia occur in people over the age of 65. Because of improvements in food production and health care, as well as demographic changes, such as the World War II baby boom, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people 65 years of age and older in the world. To some extent, the increase in the number of people diagnosed with dementia parallels this “graying” of the world’s population.

Although part of the increase in rates of dementia can be attributed to demographic factors, there is evidence that much of it is due to unhealthy changes in our modern lifestyles. A variety of studies have shown that the risk of developing dementia increases when people from simpler cultures move to developed countries and leave their traditional lifestyles behind. For example, a recent study that compared the rates of dementia in African Americans living in the United States with those of a similar population living in their native Nigeria showed that rates nearly doubled in those living in the United States. In another study, Japanese Americans that kept their language, diet, and other cultural habits were found to be far less likely to develop dementia than those that abandoned them after coming to the United States.

An overall decline in our health in modern times is a major factor in the increasing risk of developing dementia. The risk of dementia grows when an individual suffers diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and other major health problems. The numbers of people being diagnosed with such conditions are exploding: as with the incidence of dementia, the incidence of these illnesses are reaching epidemic proportions. There are other dangers of modern life that we can have difficulty avoiding or even recognizing. The air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat frequently carry contaminants that injure our health and increase our risk of developing dementia. Modern technology, such as cell phones and other electronic devices, may make its own contribution to increase this risk.

When memory and judgment fade in our loved ones, or in our selves, it is common and reasonable to consider the possibility of Alzheimer’s Dementia. However, the cases of dementia that are being diagnosed with increasing frequency in society today have little to do with the illness first described by Dr. Alois Alzheimer in 1907. The classical form of what we call Alzheimer’s Dementia is the result of genetic abnormalities that cause early and rapidly progressing loss of cognitive function. While modern cases of dementia can be the result of genetic abnormalities, in most cases, abnormal genes are neither necessary nor sufficient to produce the degeneration of brain tissue that results in the forms of dementia commonly seen today. The damage underlying most current cases of dementia is largely the result of abnormalities we introduce into our brain chemistry as the result of unhealthy diet, poor lifestyle choices, stress, and exposure to environmental contaminants.

Some losses in cognitive function that occur with age are unavoidable. Some people are genetically predisposed to dementia of one type or another. As is the case with many maladies that plague mankind, some unfortunate individuals may be destined to suffer these illnesses of the mind and brain. However, there is compelling evidence that by improving our diet, reducing stress, exercising our minds and bodies, staying socially active, and finding emotional peace most of us can avoid or at least delay the development of dementia.

In the following pages I will discuss normal patterns of aging, and how these differ from what is seen in dementia. I will explain how a physician recognizes and diagnoses dementia, and describe the different types of dementia’s and how they can be distinguished from one another. These discussions will be followed by explanation of what causes dementia, including the fact that while some forms of dementia are largely genetic, most cases of dementia arise out of poor diet and other unhealthy lifestyle choices. Then I will provide the most scientifically up to date information about strategies for changes in diet, exercise, stress management, sleep, intellectual activity, and social interaction to help avoid these diseases of the brain. As part of my presentation, I will give detailed, scientifically sound information about a variety of herbs, vitamins, and nutraceuticals that can be taken as supplements to both improve cognitive function and help prevent or at least delay the onset of dementia.