VA Maryland Health Care System
Dementia: Not Part of Normal Aging Process
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.