The Stealth Threat Of Dementia: How To Preserve Memory

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older woman hiking in the forest

Dementia is psychological vivisection. While the body is still alive, dementia dismembers the memories that are the life of the self.

A limb or loved one, injured or lost causes pain and grieving, but the self’s loss of life goes unmourned.

Rendered incapable of naming a familiar object or solving a simple problem, dementia mocks the self by leaving the body’s memories unscathed

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Can you prevent dementia and preserve your memory?

What does dementia do?

Dementia is a lifestyle disease that destroys the self’s sense of wholeness and continuity. Unnoticed, dementia festers slowly for years before a person experiences symptoms.

Unlike recent declines in cardiovascular diseases and cancers, dementia more than doubled between 1990 and 2016 and is predicted to triple by 2050.

Sadly, this may be an underestimate as the global rate of dementia is significantly higher among young people (30-64 years) than previously thought.

Moreover, once diagnosed with dementia, it's too late — there's no effective treatment for dementia. The only antidote to dementia is learning a lifestyle that enhances the self’s sense of unity, continuity, and meaningfulness.

The life of the self

Heinz Kohut defines the self as the sense that the body and mind form a unity in space, a continuum in time, and a meaningful center of action initiatives.

Learning how to maintain and enhance unity is the work of the self.

Similarly, the self works with the brain to store in unconsciousness memories of knowledge and experiences — upload memories to consciousness to solve new problems, form new memories, or just remind us who we are.

The self’s memories give continuity of life. 

So, can you prevent dementia? Be aware of the 5 Horsemen of Memory and the life of the self.

1. Healthy environments

Exposure to smog and air pollution is likely the most difficult dementia risk factor to control. There's no safe threshold when it comes to breathing polluted air and regardless of age, air pollution takes a toll on the brain.

Chronic exposure to high amounts of air pollution is linked to the development of dementia in adults and the build-up of proteins associated with Alzheimer’s diseases in the brains of children and infants as young as 11 months.

Measures to reduce exposure to air pollution and, thereby lower, risk of all-cause dementia include: 

Live in locations with low levels of air pollution, in homes more than 50 meters (164 feet) away from major highways, and wear a mask when air quality is poor.

Petition policymakers to mandate clean air policies.

2. Social relationships

Loneliness is a killer. It will often take the life of the self before it takes the life of the body. Although it's unclear how loneliness damages the brain, the damage to the self is apparent.

Loneliness clogs the arteries of love, stopping the vital flow of commitment and caring between self and others.

Here are some simple suggestions to keep the love flowing:

Just say "hi," even if it's with a smile and the glance of an eye. 

Use your head. Think about it and look for opportunities to relate to others in a caring way. Even short-term positive exchanges with the cashier at the coffeehouse, a stranger in the elevator, your co-worker, or even your significant other, can make all parties feel like they're not meaningless human-has-beens, but living, loved, and loving human beings. 

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3. Good nourishment

Dementia is associated with the consumption of pro-inflammatory, highly processed foods.

Between 1999 and 2018, consumption of ultra-processed foods among youths (2-19 years of age) increased as their consumption of healthier foods decreased (likely contributing to the unexpected increase in young-onset dementia). 

Before junk food destroys the brain and body, your food environment psychologically cultivates "Mindless Eating" supported by technology that processes food to maximally stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain.

Consequently, your food environment often makes the self insensitive and indifferent to its unity with body and brain.

To repossess and strengthen your self’s assertive power over the food environment, here are a few things to try:

Develop a mindful approach to eating.

Plan ahead. Know what time and what you are going to eat. 

Be aware of how the food you eat makes you feel and eat to feel good about yourself immediately, hours after you eat, the next day, and beyond. 

4. The "boon of sleep"

Mid-life sleep disorders increase the risk of dementia later in life.

For individuals over 60, maintaining normal sleep patterns becomes particularly difficult and can have a negative impact on memory.

Here are some healthy sleep recommendations set forth by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Stick to a sleep schedule — even on the weekends.

Avoid exercising 2–3 hours before your bedtime. 

Avoid stimulants like caffeinated drinks and foods, as well as nicotine.

Don't drink any alcoholic beverages before bed — or too many fluids. 

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Avoid large meals late at night. 

Don't take any medicines that delay or disrupt your sleep, if possible. 

Don't take naps after 3 p.m. 

5. Exercise

The wholeness power of exercise begins with the demands it places on the self, body, and brain to come together and work together as a unity.

Wholeness dictates that there is no brain health without the health of self, body, and mind. Thus, it is no coincidence that cardiovascular fitness and muscular fitness, are associated with brain fitness.

To develop a more active, wholeness lifestyle, try these:

Safety first. If it has been a while since you have exercised, make sure to check with your doctor.

Develop the self’s action-initiating power by exerting it to overcome the normal initial resistance to exercise. 

Get to know yourself. Exercise is self-education. Mindfulness matters for maintaining and enhancing self-body unity while exercising.  

The Cruelest of Maladies

My mother was a remarkable woman. In her 50s, after raising eight children, she went to college, completed her degree, became an award-winning artist, wrote two books, and, being fluent in English, Spanish, and French, spent a summer residing among the residents of Arcachon France capped off with a week touring Spain.

At the time of her induction into the Triton College Alumni Hall of Fame, she was 99 and had no recollection of the accomplishments for which she was being recognized.

Dementia stole them from her. All maladies are cruel but none like dementia. 

Love in the Time of Dementia

Success in love is a prerequisite to success in life, including a life without dementia.

Love makes you bold and daring.

When committed to caring for another person, the environment, or the precious unity of our self, body, and mind, the action-initiating power radiates from the self, the "nuclear core" of your unity, and assertively begins exploring, experimenting, and discovering ways to live a life that is truly vital. 

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Dr. Stephen J. Almada is a health psychologist. He developed the Mindfulness Eating Training Program and the Stronger Than Stress Training Program. For more information, visit his website or e-mail him at salmada@hsichicago.org.