Most of us have experienced a moment or two of forgetfulness. We can't find our keys, even though they are right where we left them. Or we can't remember precisely where we parked the car at the mall.
Perhaps running into a neighbor at the grocery store is enough to make us forget the one thing we really wanted there, even though we remember seven other items on the list.
In most cases, this is a temporary annoyance. But for those who have a family member with dementia, these little lapses can be far more frightening. What if, we wonder, this is the first sign of developing dementia ourselves?
Alzheimer's disease and other dementias take a huge toll. The costs of getting adequate help and 24-hour supervision for a family member in decline can be a significant burden. Nursing-home care can cost $60,000 a year and up.
Preventing dementia would be well worth whatever it takes. Although there are no guarantees, evidence is mounting that there are things people can do to reduce their risk of cognitive decline.
Exercise may be one of the most effective strategies for maintaining a sound mind in a healthy body. A recent study of more than 2,000 older people found that poor balance and slower walking speed both predicted a greater drop in mental-function scores after nearly six years of follow-up (Archives of Internal Medicine, May 22, 2006).
Trying to sort out the chicken from the egg here could be tricky. Early changes in the brain may have an impact on physical abilities. And alterations in physical function could have an impact on mental alertness. Other studies show, however, that elders who exercise regularly and maintain fitness are less likely to experience significant cognitive decline.
In addition to exercise, there are other ways to improve your odds against dementia. Researchers now believe that inflammation in the brain plays an important role in the development of Alzheimer's disease. Epidemiological studies suggest that anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen may be somewhat protective.
Dietary supplements might also provide some anti-inflammatory activity. They include omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil and curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric. This Indian spice has been used for centuries to flavor curry. Recently, scientists have found that this antioxidant compound fights inflammation and discourages the buildup of amyloid plaques in the brain (Current Alzheimer's Research, April 2005). Such plaques are characteristic of Alzheimer's disease.
Other supplements that are being considered for their potential against dementia include aged garlic extract, green tea, Ginkgo biloba extract, antioxidant vitamins such as C and E, and the sleep-related brain hormone melatonin (Annals of Clinical Psychiatry, October-December 2005).
Resveratrol also looks as though it may be promising. This compound is abundant in grape seed and in red wine. Perhaps that is why older people who enjoy a glass of wine or two a day are less likely to develop dementia. Overindulgence in alcohol is bad for the brain, of course.
There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease. Until there is, prevention is the best medicine.
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert. Their syndicated radio show can be heard on public radio. In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Write to them in care of this newspaper or e-mail them via their Web site: www.PeoplesPharmacy.com.