Delaying Dementia

By on February 26, 2014
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A certain degree of memory loss and decline in cognitive abilities is normal as humans age.  Neurons, or nervous system cells, in the brain are formed at birth and, for the most part, are post-mitotic, meaning they do not continue replicating.  They are unique in that a person cannot simply grow them as needed, which explains why healing brain injuries can be so daunting. 

So, when someone has been alive for seventy years, so have their neurons, and few new ones have been formed.  Hence, memory loss and slight cognitive decline are normal.  These changes, however, should not be enough to drastically alter one’s way of living.  Forgetting to water the plants or pick up dry cleaning a few times is not a huge deal.  However, forgetting how to get home or how to dial a commonly called number are signs of something more serious than normal aging.

The scientific community’s understanding of neurodegenerative diseases has seen much progress over the past few years.  At this point, it is known that most diseases irreversibly impair both memory and cognitive function.  The Alzheimer’s Association defines dementia as a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life.  The term “dementia” is umbrella term that encompasses different types of neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, which affects millions of Americans.

To date, it is believed that one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease is shrinkage of the hippocampus, a part of the brain known for learning and memory.  As a result, memory loss is the first main system of Alzheimer’ disease.  Other symptoms inevitably follow, since cell degeneration and death is occurring in different regions of the brain.  This decline is permanent because neurons cannot regenerate themselves.

Both early and late onset Alzheimer’s disease seem to have a genetic component based on research that has been conducted.  The presence of certain mutations indicates early onset Alzheimer’s disease in many patients.  Late onset Alzheimer’s disease is still being studied for more explanation as to what is going wrong in the brain.

There is, however, some good news for people who want to do everything in their power to avoid dementia.  Simple aerobic exercise a few times a week can help delay memory loss.  A study titled “Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory” published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” showed that exercise causes about a 2% increase in the hippocampus, which plays a role in memory integration.  The study was done on participants over the age of sixty, meaning that most people still have time to start on an exercise regime that can increase mental health.

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