When most people think of the changes that cognitive decline like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease brings about, they tend to focus on a few measures of brain health. The reality however, is that the truth of the breadth of the changes is a lot more complicated. The brain, naturally, is the part of our body in control of much of our bodies’ function. While the speech and cognition effects of cognitive decline are perhaps the most notable changes, the brain controls much more than just that. Complex conditions like dementia, which affect a sensitive and important part of the body like the brain, can bring about a variety of physical, social, and lifestyle changes. Diseases like Alzheimer’s will affect a person’s entire body, not just their brains.
The first stop for most older people concerned about memory loss will be their neurologist. While this is of course an important part of a comprehensive memory assessment, it is only the tip of the iceberg. Assessing an older adult's physical, social, and emotional health will provide a much more complete picture of their level of functioning. Assessing the big picture areas of a person’s life can help to maximize a patient’s quality of life. Interventions based on areas of opportunity can impact the course of a progressive disease, delaying and sometimes even preventing mild cognitive impairment from advancing and turning into dementia.
One of the most important functions of a healthy brain is providing stimulation. Sensory input, from our eyes, ears, and other sensory organs, is the necessary basis for how we experience the world. It also keeps our mind stimulated, which is an essential part of staving off cognitive decline. Studies have shown that hearing problems can trigger physical changes in the brain which can help to accelerate cognitive decline. Vision loss as well has been linked to the onset of dementia. Comprehensive eye and ear exams can help to diagnose auditory and vision issues early, allowing them to be corrected to preserve one’s sense of hearing and vision.
Physical health and activity have a direct link with the health of our brains as well, especially once we get older. The more active we are, the more we can travel and experience things, meaning we experience more stimulation. There is evidence that poor handgrip strength can predict a cognitive decline over a period of ten years. There is also considerable evidence that standing and walking in complex situations not only depends on muscles and bones, but also on many of your brain and cognition functions. Brain health is related closely to emotional health. Things like depression, stress, and isolation can impact your health and disrupt your quality of life. Depression especially is a risk factor for dementia, leading to a more rapid decline in thinking and memory skills. Depression is a medical condition and should never be considered to be a normal part of aging.
For the best cognitive outcomes, alcohol should be limited to no more than one drink, preferably red wine, each day. Too much alcohol can have negative effects. Limiting or, ideally, altogether quitting smoking is also vitally important for cardiovascular health, necessary for maintaining the brain.