Dementia is perhaps one of the most feared conditions because the effects of this disease can rob us of our sense of identity and memories. Dementia is unique to each patient and recognizing the early-stage symptoms of dementia can help you get medications which will prolong brain function and memories.
Dementia illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease occur when proteins know as tau and beta-amyloid cause “tangles” and “plaques” in brain tissue. The brain has grey matter and white matter – the grey matter stores information and memories, while white matter transmits signals between different parts of the brain and the rest of the body – sometimes called the “wiring” of the brain.
Dementia can affect white or grey matter in the brain, as brain cells begin to die if the connections are lost through brain injury or disease, inactivity, or dementia. With Alzheimer’s, the tau protein causes damage to the brain’s nerve cells in grey matter, while beta-amyloid protein causes plaques in the white matter in between – meaning memories and information stored, as well as connections between grey matter cells, are lost.
Keeping the brain active is how new connections are made, but as we age the brain loses what neurosurgeons refer to as plasticity – the ability of the brain to store new information by making connections. Children’s brains have lots of plasticity and because of this they can recover from brain injury much better than adults – the term plasticity (or neuroplasticity) implies that the brain literally imprints new information onto the cells which store memories and experiences.
When we get older, we may not acquire new information so readily and our brain cells literally go to waste and do not make new connections. Not everyone will develop dementia, but being engaged with others and enjoying new experiences and taking exercise promotes the production of serotonin in the brain – known as the happiness chemical. Falling in love demonstrates how much serotonin can affect mood and zest for life.
In order for the brain to work well and for us not to become depressed or lose brain functions like memory or problem solving, a good blood supply and nutrients are required – this is why it is important to protect cardiovascular health and eat well to make sure your arteries and heart function efficiently.
Red blood cells carry oxygen to the brain and this is crucial to brain health, so activities which boost your heart rate and blood flow to the brain will help keep your brain healthy. Some people may be more prone to dementia than others, however – and scientists have identified genes which may increase risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Most people worry about developing some form of dementia as they age and early stage symptoms include:
- Memory loss – especially short-term memory loss, as the brain is not making new connections and storing new memories
- Change in personality – mood swings or becoming aggressive, over- emotional or withdrawn can all be signs of dementia, although in later years feeling depressed or angry or upset can be common reactions to changes in life
- Loss of speech or writing ability – memory loss may mean not being able to recall words or simply not being able to connect language
- Not being able to carry out every day activities, such as caring for yourself
- Loss of judgement – people with early stage dementia may dress inappropriately if they are unable to work out what they should wear according to the weather
- Lack of motivation – early stage dementia can sometimes mimic depression and an individual may spend more time in bed or sit in front of the television and not care for themselves any more
- Losing or misplacing objects – again loss of judgement and memory may mean a person with early stage dementia begins to keep objects like keys in strange places like a teapot.
GPs are now routinely carrying out tests for early-stage dementia and Alzheimer’s disease on older patients, as part of the government’s NHS Mandate to improve care for older people. Tests may include reciting the alphabet backwards or other tests which challenge the brain’s agility and its capacity to remember.
Early stage dementia can be treated with new drugs like Rember, which can help halt the damage caused by tangles and plaques developing in the brain.
Keeping your brain active, taking exercise and eating a healthy diet with plenty of oily fish (salmon, tuna, herring), olive oil, nuts, wholegrain, seeds and fruit and vegetables – plus a little dark chocolate (70% cocoa) and a daily glass of red wine – can boost blood flow to the brain and protect your heart and arteries. Avoid sugar, high-fat foods and processed foods made with white flour or pasta or processed meats, as these can release free radicals in your system which may increase cancer, diabetes and heart attack/stroke risks.
Brain training is also a good idea – release your inner child and develop a thirst for new knowledge like a new hobby or word puzzles. Socialize and chat to friends and anyone you meet to keep your brain active and engaged. If you are worried either about yourself or a loved one, contact your GP as soon as possible, as early intervention in dementia can mean prolonging memories and brain function.