Understanding and preventing dementia


The World Health Organization (WHO) designated October 10 as Mental Health Day in 1992 to highlight mental illness and its impact on lives internationally. Some of the 196 countries that are members of the WHO celebrate the week of October 6-13 to provide mental health education, awareness and advocacy globally.

This year’s theme is “Mental Health and Older Adults.” Older adults are at risk for increased isolation and financial difficulty, and this may have a negative effect on physical as well as mental health.

Many medical conditions such as stroke, diabetes and high blood pressure, to name a few, are all risk factors for depression. Older people may be reluctant to seek mental health services due to stigma, financial concerns, or fear of loss of independence.

Fear of developing dementia is the greatest fear of many seniors 55 and above. Dementia has been coined “the defining disease of the baby boomers,” and it is estimated that by 2050 the number of seniors diagnosed with dementia (currently five million) will triple.

It is estimated that over 94,000 Minnesotans over the age of 65 currently have been diagnosed with dementia. It is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, and it is estimated that one in three seniors over 65 die from dementia.

Dementia refers to a cluster of symptoms that may include memory loss, impaired judgment, loss of communication skills, disorientation to time and place, and neglect of personal care and safety such that it interferes with one’s ability to have relationships and function. Although there are over 100 forms of dementia, the most common type is Alzheimer’s, accounting for 60-80 percent of cases, followed by vascular dementia, which is the result of inadequate blood supply to the brain.

African Americans and Latinos have higher rates of vascular disease and may be at higher risk for development of dementia. Memory lapses can increase with age and may not always indicate early signs of dementia. For example, forgetting where you left things such as glasses or keys, or having someone’s name “on the tip of your tongue” does not always mean that you have dementia.

However, if you or your family has concerns about your memory, communication or functioning, the first place to start is with your primary care provider. There is not one single test that can prove you have dementia, and your medical evaluation will likely include a complete physical, a medical history, neurological examination, a mental status evaluation, lab work, and possibly brain imaging studies.

The primary risk factors of dementia are age, family history, and genetics. Causes of dementia may include infection, brain diseases and illnesses, head trauma, poor nutrition, and substance abuse.

Although dementia is degenerative, there are some things you can do to prevent or reduce its impact. These strategies may improve mental clarity and keep your brain functioning at its best: Exercise regularly; eat a diet with fruits and vegetables; get regular and restful sleep; manage stress; quit smoking and limit drinking; exercise your mind by playing games, doing crossword or other puzzles, reading, learning and trying new things.

There are many local community centers that offer free classes and seminars. For example, the YMCA at Minneapolis’ Heritage Place offers many health and wellness classes aimed at seniors.


Deirdre Annice Golden, Ph.D., LP, is director of Behavioral Health for NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center Behavioral Health Clinic, 1313 Penn Ave. N. She welcomes reader responses to Deirdre.Golden@co.hennepin.mn.us, or call 612-543-2705.