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VA Maryland Health Care System


Dementia: Not Part of Normal Aging Process

Man and woman bending down to add safety tape to floor

In this 2009 photo, caregiver Ann Cameron helps Scott Trudeau apply tape to a step in the home she shared with her husband, Donald (in the background), who has Alzheimer's disease. (Photo by Frank Curran)

Tuesday, February 2, 2016
With the graying of America, the incidence of Alzheimer's Disease (AD) will increase. Clinicians are expecting the numbers to rise from approximately four million cases to nearly ten million cases by 2030. Adult children often begin seeking help for parents struggling with memory issues in January after noticing them during the holiday. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates there are approximately 571,000 veterans with dementia. This includes an estimated 333,000 veterans with dementia who are enrolled for VA health care, with an estimated 206,000 receiving care at a VA medical facility.

Alzheimer's Disease is the most common cause of dementia, the general term for a decline in memory and other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person's ability to perform everyday activities. While AD is the most common cause of dementia-- a wide range of illnesses can cause dementia or confusion in the elderly. Dr. David Loreck, a geriatric neuro- psychiatrist at the VA Maryland Health Care System, helps oversee  the health care system's outpatient clinics for comprehensive AD and  geriatric assessments, says that dementia, or disabling mental decline, should not be  dismissed  as part  of the normal aging process, as many people still believe. While scientists grow closer to understanding how AD can be prevented or cured, current medications provide only mild improvement in symptoms, and no current drug offers a cure, or even slows the advance of the disease. However, Loreck offers the following tips that can optimize brain health:

  • Control the biggest vascular risk factors that include chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, mini-strokes, or major strokes that may damage the brain. Quit smoking to reduce the chance of atherosclerosis.
  • Stay physically active.  Regular  exercise  provides  many benefits,  including reducing  the  vascular  risk factors that may contribute  to brain cell  loss or  damage  as well as improving  mood  and  cognitive performance.
  • Use it or lose it! Stimulate your brain by engaging in as much mentally challenging and   social activities as possible. Research has found increased mental stimulation such as cross word puzzles, and as much social interaction as possible keeps mental faculties sharp.
  • Avoid stress.  Research suggests increased stress may have many negative effects on health.

Eat a heart healthy diet. Here are some tips from the VA Maryland Health Care System's Food & Nutrition Service:

  • Eat your fruit instead of drinking it! Aim for three servings each day.
  • Add more vegetables to your plate, but remember potatoes, peas, and corn are higher in calories than the others.
  • Avoid sweetened beverages:  soda, juice, sports drinks, sweet tea, lemonade.
  • Choose higher fiber whole grains - 100% whole wheat products are not your only option. Try experimenting with barley, quinoa, or wild rice for some variety.
  • Lower salt intake: don't use the salt shaker, and limit processed and canned foods.
  • Choose fish or lean meats over fatty or processed meats.
  • Limit saturated fat, choose low fat dairy products and limit fried foods.
  • Make sure all of your packaged foods have 0 grams of trans fat on the nutrition label.
  • Watch portion sizes! Remember, just because something is good, doesn't mean more is better.

Care for Veterans with cognitive impairment is a high priority for the VA Maryland Health Care System with many veterans returning from Iraq with traumatic brain injury. Increased attention of cognitive impairment with returning Veterans should stress the need for increased awareness when cognitive problems occur in many veteran populations, including the elderly.


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