Healthy lifestyle can prevent senility

High cholesterol, low exercise rates can be factors

Like many of the elderly, my 88-year-old mother fears “losing her mind.”

Like a classic hypochondriac, she has a tendency to read information about dementia and draw the conclusion that she’s careening down a slippery slope.

Even worse, she often views a mental decline as inevitable and thus resigns herself to decision-making based on worse-case scenarios.

I have spent some time talking to her about such concerns and getting her some pamphlets and information to try and help her put things in perspective.  She is, after all, “getting up there,” but she currently lives independently and takes care of her personal matters almost entirely on her own.  I constantly remind her that she’s OK and her memory issues are not much different than mine, so like me, she should keep lists!

The human body and brain do, indeed, have a time limit attached to them.

It would be foolish to assume that aging is not going to have some impact on both physical health and mental acuity.  We are products of our genetics and our lifestyle and both of those factors play firmly into how our aging will impact upon us.

When it comes to dementia, it appears that lifestyle is the most significant factor.

Individuals with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, low rates of exercise and minimal intellectual activities, have a tendency to experience an earlier onset of symptoms.

For the most part, dementia is a function of declining efficiency of neural synapses, most commonly caused by the buildup of plaque in brain blood vessels or the natural “pruning” of neural pathways when they go unused.  Like any muscle, the brain has a “use it or lose it” potential.

The first steps to long-term mental health really take place long before we reach those golden years.  Practising good dietary and exercise habits as a life-long routine, as well as stretching our brain’s capacity through constant stimulation and challenge, is the best way to encourage mental fitness.

The earlier the better to develop good habits, but better today than never to change bad ones!

Yet, despite our best efforts to maintain mental health, some people will experience various levels of decline.  They may notice changes themselves or it may be relatives or friends that will notice changes in abilities or mood that will signify something is not right.

An individual with good mental health is generally stable emotionally and independent in living his/her day-to-day life.  We all have our little quirks, but it is a change in the usual patterns of living that raises a red flag.  It is important that we look out for each other.

Some of us will also experience a reduction in mental sharpness that is not necessarily progressive or a threat to our long-term capacity to care for ourselves.  In other words, a little loss of sharpness may not be related to a form of dementia.  Forgetting a few things is hardly a reason to start making arrangements for long-term care!

What is most important in keeping track of mental health processes is to develop a good relationship with a family physician, ensure that physical health factors that might affect mental health are addressed and perhaps keep a journal of mental or emotional changes that are occurring.  Early diagnosis and treatment can be effective in reducing both the anxiety and the symptoms of “losing your mind.”

Graham Hookey writes on education, parenting and eldercare.  ghookey@yahoo.com.

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