I shouldn’t be surprised by this: according to Alzheimer’s and Dementia, cognitive impairment (such as dementia) is affecting a smaller percentage of elderly Americans today that it did fifteen years ago. HealthCentral quotes the study as saying that these problem affected from 12.2 percent in 1993 and 8.7 percent in 2002.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease isn’t increasing. We’re still facing a coming Alzheimer’s epidemic as more people live long enough to show the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. But of those who live long, fewer of them are having problems with their memory.
The most important reason? Fewer strokes, fewer mini-strokes, and less vascular dementia (from poor blood flow to the brain), thanks to healthier diets and medications. The discovery that aspirin can prevent cardiovascular disease has probably helped millions. My grandmother took an aspirin pill every day.
The study suggests that using your brain can build up reserves that can withstand troubles such as strokes, head injuries, plaques and tangles. But don’t wait until you turn 80 to take up video games and crossword puzzles. You should build up those reserves as soon as possible, as young as possible. The American Psychological Association finds benefits in short mental workouts. They say,
“Memory devices such as mnemonics, routines, visualization, linking new learning to something personally meaningful, and other strategies can boost memory. The greatest gains come from combining memory skill training with cognitive restructuring – in other words, accepting normal age-related changes and actively compensating for them.”
Why is working out so hard for people, even mental workouts? I think that we associate work with drudgery. There aren’t many sweatshops in the West, where people are expected to do the same thing hour after hour, over and over, all day long, for years. Or are there? It seems to me that that idea of division of labor, where some people do one thing and never do anything else, makes people want to do nothing at all when they get a chance. They long for retirement, and when it comes, they often die.
If we all did different things all day long, we could do them longer. We could do them happier. If writing poetry or researching plants was considered something that anybody could do, then everybody might try it. Brains would get more exercise.