As adults approach their later years, a major concern many have is retaining and maintaining their cognitive faculties. In fact, Alzheimer’s disease was rated second only to cancer in regard to a distressing diagnosis. According to the Washington Post:
A 2011 survey for the MetLife Foundation found that the only disease more dreaded than Alzheimer’s was cancer. A Harris Poll conducted in April for Aegis Living, an assisted-living and Alzheimer’s care company, found that the worries cross all generations: more than 75 percent of millennials, Generation Xers and baby boomers worry about what will happen to their memory as they age. 1
Searching for the fountain of youth is one thing, but avoiding Alzheimer’s is not just about mitigating aging or feeding vanity. Avoiding a diagnosis of dementia means far more than going beyond our society’s obsession of anti-aging.2 It is past the insight hoped to be gained from studying longevity cultures which not only survive, but thrive into their later years. This is, because if one’s memory and brain is dysfunctional, there is the possibility of losing the ability to interact and recognize loved ones as well as loss of independence and joy for life. These aspects are what many view as the most important part of being alive. The fact is that, as more people are aging, the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is becoming more common. This does not help in mitigating worries.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association:
The number of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias will grow each year as the size and proportion of the U.S. population age 65 and older continue to increase. By 2025, the number of people age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s disease is estimated to reach 7.1 million — a 40 percent increase from the 5.1 million age 65 and older affected in 2015. By 2050, the number of people age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s disease may nearly triple, from 5.1 million to a projected 13.8 million, barring the development of medical breakthroughs to prevent or cure the disease.3
Most parents desire to be alive and thrive in their elder years in order to see their own children and grandchildren grow up and to be active participants in their lives. However, the reality is that today many middle-aged adults are giving some kind of support, financially or emotionally, to their own parents, as well as their young and older children. According to the Pew Research Center:
According to a new nationwide Pew Research Center survey, roughly half (48%) of adults ages 40 to 59 have provided some financial support to at least one grown child in the past year, with 27% providing the primary support. These shares are up significantly from 2005. By contrast, about one-in-five middle-aged adults (21%) have provided financial support to a parent age 65 or older in the past year, basically unchanged from 2005. The new survey was conducted Nov. 28-Dec. 5, 2012 among 2,511 adults nationwide.4
It is now being said that, as the Baby Boomer generation continues to age, they are outliving their parents and it is now the generation Xers that are next in line for being “sandwiched.”4 The “sandwich generation” has been shown to have an increased amount of physical and emotional stressors as they split their time and support between caring for their aging parents as well as their own children.3-5 Furthermore, some in the “club sandwich” generation, are also caring for their grandchildren. The Alzheimer’s Association reports:
Alzheimer’s takes a devastating toll on caregivers. Nearly 60 percent of Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers rate the emotional stress of caregiving as high or very high; about 40 percent suffer from depression. Due to the physical and emotional toll of caregiving, Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers had $9.7 billion in additional health care costs of their own in 2014.3
Living in this stress of being a multiple caregiver, many current parents come to me seeking assistance to support their brain. A major goal of theirs is to avoid inflicting these multi-generational responsibilities on their own children. The first thing I always point out to them is that we have to address their own emotional strain because, as mentioned, stress itself can impact brain health and memory. For example, one study correlated the daily ranges in cortisol to brain volume.7 Several other studies have also shown differences in hypothalamus functioning, the area in the brain involved in memory, and cortisol levels.8-11 (Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone.”) One small study demonstrated that exposure to cortisol altered hippocampal function in women and emotional processing in both sexes.8 A 1998 study abstract from Nature Neuroscience stated:
Elevated glucocorticoid levels produce hippocampal dysfunction and correlate with individual deficits in spatial learning in aged rats. Previously we related persistent cortisol increases to memory impairments in elderly humans studied over five years. Here we demonstrate that aged humans with significant prolonged cortisol elevations showed reduced hippocampal volume and deficits in hippocampus-dependent memory tasks compared to normal-cortisol controls. Moreover, the degree of hippocampal atrophy correlated strongly with both the degree of cortisol elevation over time and current basal cortisol levels. Therefore, basal cortisol elevation may cause hippocampal damage and impair hippocampus-dependent learning and memory in humans.10
Some tips to mitigate stress were reviewed in a previous blog of mine. These include exercise, yoga, getting out in nature, social support, and the “law of least effort”. You also want to take beautiful care of your body and nurture it with appropriate sleep, rest, meditation, play, proper diet (controlling inflammation), and avoiding toxins when possible. A quick summary on some tips for optimal brain health is here and I’ve also listed some things to look for to support emotional and brain health here.
Feeding Your Brain with Proper Nutrition
What diet is best for your brain? Can supplements help? Click here to read more about the proper feeding of your brain and some nutritional support that may also assist.
- Kunkle, F. Alzheimer’s spurs the fearful to change their lives to delay it. The Washington Post. July 4, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/fear-of-alzheimers-is-everywhere-but-its-spurring-some-people-to-change-their-lives-for-the-better/2015/07/04/c0600046-192a-11e5-93b7-5eddc056ad8a_story.html
- Archer, D. Forever Young: America’s Obsession With Never Growing Old. Psychology Today. October 2, 2013. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reading-between-the-headlines/201310/forever-young-americas-obsession-never-growing-old
- The Alzheimer’s Association. 2015 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures. 2015. http://www.alz.org/facts/
- Parker K, Patten E. The Sandwich Generation. The Pew Research Center. January 30, 2013. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/01/30/the-sandwich-generation/
- O’Brien S. Being stuck in sandwich generation is no baloney. CNBC.com. March 31, 2015. http://www.cnbc.com/2015/03/31/being-stuck-in-sandwich-generation-is-no-baloney.html
- Abaya C. The Sandwich Generation. http://www.thesandwichgeneration.com/
- Cortisol Levels in Seniors Tied to Brain Volume. MedPage Today. August 20, 2015. http://www.medpagetoday.com/Neurology/Dementia/53150?xid=nl_mpt_DHE_2015-08-21&eun=g762524d0r
- Abercrombie HC, Jahn AL, Davidson RJ, Kern S, Kirschbaum C, Halverson J. Cortisol’s effects on hippocampal activation in depressed patients are related to alterations in memory formation. Journal of psychiatric research. 2011;45(1):15-23. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2010.10.005.
- Vythilingam M, Vermetten E, Anderson GM, Luckenbaugh D, Anderson ER, Snow J, Staib LH, Charney DS, Bremner JD.Hippocampal volume, memory, and cortisol status in major depressive disorder: effects of treatment. Biol Psychiatry. 2004 Jul 15;56(2):101-12.
- Lupien SJ, de Leon M, de Santi S, Convit A, Tarshish C, Nair NP, Thakur M, McEwen BS, Hauger RL, Meaney MJ. Cortisol levels during human aging predict hippocampal atrophy and memory deficits. Nat Neurosci. 1998 May;1(1):69-73.
- Lindauer RJ, Olff M, van Meijel EP, Carlier IV, Gersons BP.Cortisol, learning, memory, and attention in relation to smaller hippocampal volume in police officers with posttraumatic stress disorder. Biol Psychiatry. 2006 Jan 15;59(2):171-7. Epub 2005 Sep 9.