June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month


Alzheimer’s disease is most likely to occur in people age 65 and older, but if that’s when you start thinking about the disease, you’re already too late. The changes in our brains that lead to Alzheimer’s begin 15 to 20 years before current science can diagnose it, so it’s never too early to take charge of your own brain health.

June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, and the Alzheimer’s Association reminds us that almost all of us will be touched by the disease at some point, whether through the disease itself or by caring for a loved one who has it. And waiting for Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia to show themselves means we’ve waited too long.

Why be concerned about Alzheimer’s? The disease is the seventh-leading cause of death, and the only leading disease without a prevention or cure. And while age is the primary risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s, as much as 40 percent of dementia cases may be attributable to modifiable risk, meaning we can reduce — or increase — that risk depending on how we lead our lives.

“Research shows that adopting healthy behaviors, like getting exercise and good quality sleep, may reduce the risk of cognitive decline,” said Jim Hammelev, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado.

“We know that the brain changes that lead to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis are happening 15 to 20 years before the disease is ever diagnosed,” Hammelev said. “Factors including high blood pressure, lack of physical activity, our diet and how social we are all play a role in our risk for developing Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.”

Following are some statistics about the risk of developing Alzheimer’s:

• More than 7 million Americans are among the 55 million people worldwide living with Alzheimer’s disease, including nearly 91,000 Coloradans.

• Women account for roughly two-thirds of all cases.

• Black Americans are twice as likely as whites to develop Alzheimer’s, while Hispanic and Native Americans are 50 percent more likely.

• One person in nine (10.9 percent) over age 65 is living with Alzheimer’s. At age 85, 33.4 percent of all people are living with the disease.

• The lifetime risk for Alzheimer’s at age 45 is 1 in 5 for women and 1 in 10 for men.

Steps to maintain cognitive health

While age remains the leading risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease, there are specific steps we can take to maintain our cognitive health and reduce our overall risk of developing Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

• Can you hear me now? 

Hearing loss is present in 65 percent of adults over age 60, according to researchers. One study looked at a subgroup of older adults with hearing loss who were at higher risk for cognitive decline (about one-quarter of the total study population). It showed that those participants at highest risk for cognitive decline who utilized hearing aids and hearing counseling for three years cut their cognitive decline in half (48 percent).

• Guard your gut. 

Sixteen percent of the world’s population struggles with constipation — more among older adults due to fiber-deficient diets, lack of exercise and the use of certain medications.

Researchers found that bowel movements less frequent than every three days was associated with 73% higher odds of subjective cognitive decline and long-term health issues like inflammation, hormonal imbalances and anxiety/depression.

• Unrefined is fine. 

If more than 20 percent of your caloric intake consists of ultra-processed foods, including breakfast cereals, white bread, potato chips, soda, hamburgers and French fries along with frozen foods such as lasagna, pizza and ice cream, researchers say you are likely to have a 28 percent faster decline in global cognitive scores — including memory, verbal fluency and executive function — compared to those with lower consumption.

• Sleep it off. 

The National Sleep Foundation reports that sleep apnea may affect 20 percent of the population, and most of those (85 percent) don’t know they have it. People with this sleep disorder are more likely to have brain biomarkers associated with a heightened risk of stroke and cognitive decline. Sleep apnea also increases other health risks, including cardiovascular disease and hypertension, which are associated with higher incidence of dementia.

• Be engaged. 

Volunteering in later life is associated with better cognitive function. A University of California-Davis study found that volunteering was associated with better baseline scores on tests of executive function and verbal episodic memory. 

Volunteering vs. working: A study by University of Colorado researchers of an adult population aged 70 to 79 showed that volunteering was related to 16 percent lower odds of developing dementia (24 percent lower among women). While there are benefits to remaining cognitively active through employment after the traditional retirement age, researchers noted that volunteering may provide added benefits because volunteering “is mentally and emotionally rewarding.”

Volunteer with us: As an Alzheimer’s Association volunteer, you can help people in your community take steps to reduce their dementia risk and recognize the signs of Alzheimer’s. Visit alz.org/volunteer.

• Ask your doctor. 

Adults age 65 and over can receive a Medicare-covered cognitive assessment during their routine doctor’s visit, such as an annual physical. Why is this important? Roughly half of all Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease are never diagnosed. Without a diagnosis, you cannot take advantage of the new FDA-approved medications proven to slow the disease’s progression. And family members will not know to take advantage of valuable educational programs, provided at no charge by the Alzheimer’s Association, to help better understand the changes that come with the disease, and important legal and financial planning steps.

To learn more about the Alzheimer’s Association 10 Healthy Habits for Your Brain, go to alz.org/healthyhabits.