Dementia and Neuroplasticity: What Might Help Today
According to the Alzheimer's Research Trust, more than 24.3 million people are estimated to have dementia and 4.6 million are newly diagnosed each year. The rate of dementia is expected to double between 2001 and 2040. So many people have been touched by this disease either in our their own families or through a close friend. According to a recent study in the Journal of Neurology, people who are better able to handle stress and anxiety, may have a lower risk of dementia.
In Stockholm, Sweden, leading author Hui-Xin Wang of the Karolinska Institute recruited a group of 506 people and had them fill out a questionnaire that assessed their personality types and level of social activity. He then followed this group over a course of 6 years. Over that time, 144 people developed dementia. The participants who were more socially active and not as easily distressed or participants who weren't as socially active, but showed a sense of calm and satisfaction with life, did not develop dementia.
The finding suggests that people who lead a more active lifestyle or can manage stress and have stronger social networks, may have a resilience that buffers against dementia. There is some sense to this. One quality of dementia is depression. When people are more satisfied with life or more active in general, this helps buffer against depression too.
Why is this so important? There is now evidence that we have the ability to change our brains through the process of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the process of our brain being able to change as a result of our experiences and is one of the most important findings in neuroscience today. Just think, doctors are now able to use positron emission tomography (PET) scans to detect dementia early on. If we were then able to engage in a more active lifestyle at that point or develop certain lifestyle and stress-reduction skills (e.g., mindfulness and meditation), we may be able to create what Dr. Yaakov Stern, professor of clinical neurology at Columbia University Medical Center, calls "cognitive reserve", change the brain, and buffer against the progression of the disease.
If you or someone you know has suffered from dementia, please comment below and share challenges or what has helped you. It is often the caretaker who experiences some of the most tremendous stress. Your writings, comments, and questions below create a living wisdom for so many to benefit from.