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It’s entirely possible that I could have forgotten.

But I know I have a lot of company.

If you’re like me, you might sometimes forget where you put the cell phone, the person you were going to email, or even the name of your co-worker’s husband. Have you experienced this kind of memory loss? I’m sure you have. Occasional forgetfulness, for most of us, is merely a reflection of an overworked or overtired brain, or just an unfortunate result of normal aging.

Although scientific research tells us that a degree of age-related memory loss is to be expected (and may be unavoidable), it’s important to understand that not all memory and cognitive thinking loss is the same. Accumulating birthdays is only one part of the memory picture. Injury, disease, and lifestyle can also all play a role in how well our brains function, in youth as well as in our golden years.

In fact, harmless mental decline, while inevitable, can appear as early as in middle age, but so can the onset of Alzheimer’s, in which nerve cells in the brain’s memory center have been destroyed. But keep in mind that Alzheimer’s and other profound brain impairments are not “normal aging.”

What’s the difference? Is any memory loss reversible or preventable? Let’s gain some understanding—and reassurance—now about the brain’s function and the aging process. And better yet, we’ll look at what we can do to stay sharp and focused.

Some facts worth remembering

Dr. Sheldon Wolf, clinical professor of neurology and director of the Memory Disorders Clinic at UCLA, states that “Alzheimer’s Disease is an approaching tsunami. There are currently 6 million people with this disease in the United States. The cost to the country this year is close to 200 billion dollars. In 40 years it may approach 1 trillion dollars, or a tenth of the entire U.S. economy. The source of these ominous figures is the huge increase in the number of elderly, as the baby boomer generation ages. The main cause is getting old.”

Wow. Those are huge numbers that describe a serious problem. But what do those stats mean for us as individuals? Is Dr. Wolf implying that Alzheimer’s is an unavoidable result of aging? In a word, no.

Dr. Wolf is explaining that the disease’s impact on us—both as a population and in financial terms—is growing because the effects of late-stage Alzheimer’s are more obvious in an aging population. In other words, we don’t necessarily have a greater rate of Alzheimer’s cases nationally than we used to, but our population does now tend to live longer—long enough for the most severe effects to show up.

What is Alzheimer’s, and how does it compare to other brain conditions?

According to the National Institutes of Health, dementia is a term that may be used to describe loss of brain function in general. It can be associated with any number of conditions, and it comes in many forms. Some types of dementia, such as those that may accompany injury or are a side effect of long-term medical treatment, can be only temporary. On the other hand, “Alzheimer’s disease” describes one specific form of dementia. Alzheimer’s—which may affect memory as well as cognition and behavior—is a far-reaching loss of function that is not reversible but in fact gradually increases in severity over time.

Dr. Wolf explains that “Alzheimer’s is caused by malformed proteins which accumulate in the brain and destroy brain cells and synaptic connections. It is not a normal aspect of aging or the milder memory changes that often accompany getting older.” He goes on to add that Alzheimer’s is characterized by a severely debilitating form of dementia, which progresses until normal, independent daily life becomes impossible.

A surprising finding, Dr. Wolf states, is that “the onset of Alzheimer’s is not in old age, but in middle age. The biochemical abnormalities that will result in Alzheimer’s begin about 20 years before there are clinical signs of the disease. By the time memory loss is apparent, a large percentage of nerve cells in the brain’s memory center have been destroyed. Alzheimer’s disease begins usually in middle age; Alzheimer’s dementia in older age.”

What can you do today to minimize your risk?

In addition to age, family history and genetics can play a role in Alzheimer’s-related dementia. But perhaps the most common causes of dementia in general are ones that are potentially controllable, those that are part of your present health snapshot. For example, it’s said that what is good for your heart benefits the brain. Therefore, keeping down blood pressure and cholesterol and preventing or effectively treating diabetes would be at the top of the heart health as well as the dementia prevention “to-do” lists. In fact, inflammation generally accompanies high blood sugar and obesity (both associated with diabetes, which is linked with heart disease) and will at the same time have a negative impact on the tissues of the brain.

That’s just the tip of the prevention iceberg. Tune in to my next post where I’ll talk about the latest research into food, supplements, activities, and lifestyle changes that can affect not only your overall health but also your brain power.

I promise not to forget!

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