America Has a Dementia Problem. Here’s How to Dodge It.

A study from Columbia neurologists details how prevalent the condition is

An illustration of a man looking up at a tangled brain.
Cemile Bingol/Getty Images

According to research published this week in JAMA Neurology, 10% of American adults over the age of 65 currently have dementia.

Researchers at the the Columbia University Irving Medical Center analyzed data from thousands of participants in the exhaustive, longitudinal Health and Retirement Study to arrive at that number and reached some other conclusions, too:

  • An additional 22% of American adults over the age of 65 have mild cognitive impairment
  • Dementia is rare before the age of 70 — just 3% of people between 65 and 69 suffer from the condition
  • Over a third of seniors aged 90 years or older have dementia

ScienceDaily reports that this is “the first nationally representative study of cognitive impairment prevalence in more than 20 years.” It arrives at an important time.

While you may have read in the news that American life expectancy has taken a hit in recent years (with COVID deaths and opioid overdoses playing an unfortunate role), lifespan remains on an upward trend; humans who survive to the age of 65 can expect to live longer than their parents, while the number of centenarians is expected to skyrocket in the coming decades.

In 1990, there were less than 100,000 people 100 or older on the planet…by 2050, there will be nearly four million. And charts from the World Economic Forum illustrate that life expectancy is increasing the world over, even in less developed regions.

That said: more people living more years also means more cases of dementia. And the rate of dementia has already been on an upward trend for years, due to the prevalence of poor lifestyle behaviors like smoking, binge drinking, high-fat eating and around-the-clock sitting. There will be at least 115 million people dealing with dementia globally, in any of its debilitating forms, by the year 2050.

It’s scary stuff, and as worthy a reminder as any that you shouldn’t wait until your retirement years to start thinking about healthy aging. If you’re inclined to add years to your life, those ought to be quality years, neither beset by dementia or even mild cognitive impairment — which refers to a muddled gateway period that could lead to dementia. (Think: increased bouts of forgetfulness, irritability and impulsivity. Friends and families may refer to you as “slipping.”)

Get to your doctor early and ask for a thorough review of your medical history and potential risks. Sometimes genetics don’t work in your favor. And in general, brain change is inevitable. But you can delay the onset of mild cognitive impairment and dementia (and in some cases, actually beat back MCI) by taking a proactive approach to your cognitive fitness.

The good news? Chasing cognitive fitness is actually a pretty good life. It involves doing things — and who doesn’t want more of that, especially after the last few years? Try to actively attend workshops and talks, reconnect with old friends, make new ones, join teams, read consistently, watch TV with intention, visit museums and historical sites, travel to new countries, take classes, play board games, solve puzzles.

In other words: refuse to act your age. Dementia’s easiest target is someone who’s given up. The more you do, the more energy you’ll have, and the sharper your brain will stay. No guarantees you’ll live to 100, but at least you’ll have a better shot at dodging another statistic…that of those 10% over the age of 65.

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