Nearly 600,000 Canadians are living with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, and this number is growing. It’s important to challenge the belief that dementia is inevitable as we age. The truth is dementia is not a natural part of getting older, although age remains the biggest risk factor. After 65, a person’s likelihood of developing dementia doubles every five years.
A major study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association this summer found that living a healthy lifestyle can help offset a person's genetic risk of dementia by 32 per cent.
The team at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute is intensely focused on brain health and aging research to uncover what society can do to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and related dementias. The research being conducted at Baycrest continues to show that the earlier we begin to take preventive measures, the better the odds for improving outcomes for brain health. Imagine this: if we can delay the onset of dementia by five years, we can reduce its prevalence in the population by about one-third.
A healthy lifestyle extends beyond diet and exercise and includes activities that spark from the well of creativity and community. Art, expression and music can challenge us to learn new things, find patterns and make connections. Studies suggest that short-term visual arts or music training can boost the brain health of older adults.
Speaking two languages can delay the onset of dementia by four years. Finally, consider this: being a lifelong musician can delay some age-related hearing problems by 20 years (and hearing loss can lead to social isolation, a risk factor for cognitive decline and other age-related health issues).
In addition to healthy and creative living, there is a huge role for the community to play. Making space for honest, open conversations that demystify, destigmatize and challenge misconceptions around aging can provide clarity to people who are unsure if they’re experiencing normal age-related memory changes or early signs of dementia.
Adults may often proclaim, “I’ve lost my keys; it must be Alzheimer’s!” but whether said in jest or fear, this kind of talk can heighten confusion and anxiety. By worrying too much about memory lapses we tend to make more memory mistakes, falling victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Raising awareness of negative thinking and talking openly about brain health from a young age will help us better understand realities versus perceptions when it comes to aging.
Community campaigns such as The Brain Project are making strides to challenge misconception and spark accessible conversation. The vigorous initiative forges a connection between international artists, celebrities, researchers and philanthropists, akin to the synaptic connections required for everyday brain health.
There is a movement afoot to “change the tape” — not only in terms of media discourse and societal stigma but also the tape that exists in people’s own self-talk patterns. From a young age, Canadians need to get a head start on brain health. Society needs to consider human brains in much the same way it considers hearts, kidneys, livers, lungs and overall physical health.
The brain responds positively to all healthy inputs, whether lifestyle, creativity or community-based.
In the face of a growing public health crisis, we need to challenge misconceptions now. Let’s change our mindsets for the future health of our communities.
Susan Vandermorris is a clinical neuropsychologist who leads the Memory and Aging Program at Baycrest.