My Gran had dementia. Should that make me nervous?

Image courtesy of GOKHAN OKUR

Will I lose my mind?

The healthy brain is a full, fleshy looking thing with tight, rounded folds.

The dementing brain isn’t.

It’s more like a walnut, somewhat shrivelled away from its shell, with loose convolutions and not filling its shell to capacity like a healthy brain fills the skull.

My paternal Gran had Alzheimer’s disease. So did the other one, actually. Should I be worried that my brain is turning into a walnut in appearance, (and in ability) because it’s clearly in my family?

Should I panic when my Dad asks me the same set of questions, each month, for three months?

Going nuts slowly but determinedly

Dementias are degenerative brain diseases. Alzheimer’s disease is perhaps the most well-known, but there are others, too, such as Lewy body dementia. While the names and some of the symptoms vary a bit, they all trend in the same direction with the same outcome.

There’s a marked increase in memory loss, problems in thinking, self-control and emotional regulation, social skills and so on. There’s no cure, and it’s fatal.

It’s scary stuff, which is why fear of mental decline is an increasingly common fear, some say the greatest fear, of the baby boomers, who are just starting to hit the aged care market. The kids of baby-boomers are also watching intently, and now beginning to wonder what they can do for their parents and, for themselves.

Otherwise… walnut-brained, old, and blithering.


So what’s our plan?

Understand what we’re dealing with

Let’s put one idea to bed straight away.

As we understand more, thinking on memory, and forgetting, changes. When it comes to memory loss, things are different now. I remember being taught about “normal memory loss”, teaching this myself, and even using words like memory loss as a normal part of aging

Well, now, according to Dr Barry Reisberg, that’s just not right. Memory loss, however we describe it, is not normal. True, sometimes it’s related to other things, such as depression, or brain injury rather than dementia but, Reisberg says, there is no such thing as normal memory loss.

If you think you’re losing your memory, we’d now think about it a bit differently. Now, we would describe a staged process of memory loss.

At the start, everything is normal, and you feel fine in every regard. Called NCI, for No Cognitive Impairment, this is the normal, everyday state we all experience.

Then there’s the niggle that begins with thinking you, or more exactly, your memory, isn’t quite what it used to be. You might mention it to your partner or doctor, but tests show no impairment. This is Subjective Cognitive Impairment (SCI).

The next stage is Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). You can still function pretty well most of the time but clearly show memory loss greater than SCI. Tests will show abnormalities, and many researchers now consider this as a progressive condition that is really an early stage dementia.

Last is full-blown dementia. Alzheimer’s disease.

NCI   –   SCI   –   MCI   –   Alzheimer’s

The benefit of an approach like this is that we can identify problems way, waaaaay earlier. Additionally, we might start thinking about preventive maintenance, way earlier also.

Which brings us back to our plan. And two things for today – more next time.

Start early where you can

Back in the day we talked about the benefits of learning and playing music, particularly if we start young  and play for ten years, in which case the benefits persist, even if the music practice doesn’t.  There’s also benefit in starting music at any age, particularly in brain volume.

So call it music practice, call it an Alzheimer’s prevention strategy, call it an investment in a happy retirement. For that matter, why not take a punt and ask for a reduction in your health insurance premium because your commitment to brain health will reduce the public health burden. Call it what you want but, if you can start your kids or grandkids off on music before the age of 10, they’ll fare better later.

And what stops you picking up an instrument now, at your age?

Yes, I have the same excuses as you, especially the one that goes something like “And when would I fit that in??!!”

Yes, I know this is a big ask and feels daunting, but…

Worry more about what you eat than you do about your Gran

Admittedly, there are family links in Alzheimer’s disease, but they’re small, really small. Like 1% or so, according to Dr Stuart Lipton, and they’re significantly dependent on your lifestyle.

So for those of you without Alzheimer’s in the family, understand that this is no guarantee it won’t develop, especially if your lifestyle is questionable.

And if we’re talking about lifestyle, then it’s probably no surprise that diet must come into the conversation somewhere. But it probably is a surprise to realize to what extent diet is important.

Underneath the diet argument is insulin. The stuff of diabetes. As a rule, diabetics are more likely (two to three times) to develop Alzheimer’s. Weight, girth, and obesity are all risk factors for diabetes and, consequently, early risk factors for Alzheimer’s. Being unable to make insulin contributes to brain degeneration.

So strong are the connections between insulin and Alzheimer’s that, late last year, Dr Suzanne Craft and collaborators published the results of their pilot study into insulin treatment for Alzheimer’s, with extremely promising results.

So as not to interfere with blood insulin or glucose levels, the insulin was administered with a quick nasal spray. It’s easily and quickly done, and easily and quickly absorbed into the brain.

We’re not to get carried away with potential treatments, of course, but the point remains that insulin is a key player in the dementia game.

And the flip side of the memory coin

Along with stopping the negative goes enhancing the positive, so just as we need to reduce foods that lead to diabetes, we need to increase some others. Again, not to suggest a magic bullet solution here, but foods rich in choline have been shown to improve memory.

You’ll find choline in fish (saltwater), meat, eggs, liver (especially liver) and some legumes such as kidney beans and soy beans, as reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Choline is interesting because the body makes choline into acetylcholine. This is a common, versatile chemical that you’ll find in a number of places in your body, including the brain, where its effects are noticed in attention and memory. Lack of acetylcholine is tied to Alzheimer’s disease.

So here’s the take home bit

Learn an instrument, and make your kids and grandkids do it too.

Eat a low-carb, high protein diet with brightly colored vegetables. They should still be brightly colored after you’ve cooked them, too.

In addition to feeling better anyway, you’ll help improve your memory and attention, and help stave off the risk of Alzheimer’s.

If only my Gran had known. Better tell Dad.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Choline, Acetylcholine, Lewy bodies

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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One Response to My Gran had dementia. Should that make me nervous?

  1. Pingback: Who wants to live forever? | Bite sized brains

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