- Doctors who specialize in the aging brain say that dementia is not inevitable
- Making positive lifestyle changes earlier in life can lessen your chances, they say
- Alzheimer's is perhaps the best known and most feared form of dementia
- Even moderate exercise can actually increase the size of the brain's hippocampus
When Darla Arni's mother began showing the first signs of dementia 16 years ago, Arni worried she was doomed to the same fate.
So Arni began reading up on what she could do to stay mentally sharp. Turns out, plenty.
Arni, now 55, grew up on a farm where her mother fried just about everything in lard. Today, she skips the fried foods and eats plenty of fruits and vegetables, takes fish oil pills, goes for regular walks and meditates during a weekly yoga class.
"I'm doing everything I can," says Arni, a public speaker and author who lives in Slater, Missouri.
And what's the point?
Doctors who specialize in the aging brain say that dementia is not inevitable, even in very old age. Making positive lifestyle changes earlier in life, they say, can lessen the chances of the faulty thinking and flagging memory that often come with advancing years.
Dr. Gary Small, director of UCLA's Longevity Center, says lifestyle may play a bigger role than genetics when it comes to who will fall into what he calls the "mental fog" of dementia.
Alzheimer's is perhaps the best known and most feared form of dementia. Early onset Alzheimer's disease, which often has a strong genetic component, may not be delayed with any lifestyle changes.
But late-life Alzheimer's, affecting people in their 80s and 90s, has only a minor genetic component and can be delayed or prevented with lifestyle changes -- especially if the changes begin in midlife, says Dr. Majid Fotuhi, chairman of the Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness and a neurology professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
I say, 'Dance'
Fotuhi began ballroom dancing when he was a student at Harvard Medical School. It was a break from all the studying. More than that, it was fun.
Now a neurologist, Fotuhi still dances. He and his wife, Bita, have mastered the tango. As an expert on how the brain ages, Fotuhi sees another benefit: Dancing is the perfect activity to keep the brain young.
"When people say, 'What's the one thing I can do?' I say, 'Dance.' " Fotuhi says.
The answer to keeping the brain sharp, neurologists agree, is not sudoku or crossword puzzles -- despite the conventional wisdom.
Staying physically fit is the most important element to keeping the brain young later in life, they say. Remaining socia