Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia and cognitive decline impact millions of people, beyond the 5.8 million aged Americans who are currently living with Alzheimer's. While many believe that only the elderly suffer cognitive brain diseases, the number of people with young-onset Alzheimer’s is growing every year. And when you consider all of the people who suffer dementia from causes besides Alzheimer’s, like high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, traumatic brain injury, or the myriad of other diseases, you may come to the conclusion that there are very few people who aren’t at risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia.
It may surprise you that a significant number of people suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia aren’t yet senior citizens. According to the Mayo Clinic, 200,000 to 240,000 people currently suffer from young-onset Alzheimer’s, meaning they are younger than 65 years old when they are diagnosed. Most young-onset people living with Alzheimer’s begin having symptoms between the ages of 30 and 60.
The story of a Sacramento artist and college professor is just one example of how devastating an early-onset Alzheimer’s or dementia diagnosis can be. At 54, David Wetzle was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, or FTD, a form of dementia caused by nerve cell damage in the brain that affects 50,000 to 60,000 people in the U.S. People living with the disease can become antisocial and act in embarrassing, and even dangerous, ways. As the disease progresses, patients become uncommunicative and require 24-hour care. Wetzle is now 60 years old and living in a full-time care facility, where he is visited regularly by his wife.
Another significant cause of dementia symptoms in people under the age of 65 is traumatic brain injury. Concussions and other brain injuries go hand-in-hand with popular sports like boxing and football, leaving a significant number of former athletes with life-long damage to their brains.
Take the case of T.J. Abraham, who played football at a Catholic high school in a Pittsburgh suburb, before attending Duquesne University, and playing football for another three years. “I probably got my bell rung 70 times,” he said. Abraham eventually became an obstetrics and gynecology doctor, until he turned 42 and began experiencing temper flares, lapsing judgment and a failing memory. The diagnosis? Neurodegenerative dementia. Abraham was forced to resign his position and is now retired and advocating for disallowing children under 12 years old from playing football, in order to protect their brains.
Another group that is affected by cognitive impairment is perimenopausal women, women in their 40s and 50s who have started to transition to menopause and whose bodies are producing smaller amounts of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone. Dr. Lisa Mosconi, who directs Weill Cornell Medicine’s Women’s Brain Initiative, has been conducting research with perimenopausal women to review brain atrophy, vascular damage, and connectivity.
“Forty-to-60-year-old men are doing well,” she said, “whereas for women, there is a marked decline in brain energy and an increase in Alzheimer’s plaques as they go from premenopausal to fully menopausal.” Mosconi’s theory is that the severe decrease in estrogen leaves the brain more vulnerable, “Estrogen is a neuroprotective hormone. When it declines, the brain is left more vulnerable. So if a woman is somehow predisposed to Alzheimer’s, that’s when the risk manifests itself in her brain.”
While the most common risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia is simply advanced age, scientists believe that long term effects of the body’s immune responses and inflammation on the brain contribute to development of these brain diseases. That’s just one reason that it is never too early to start providing nutritional support to your brain.
Genetics also play a part in developing Alzheimer’s disease, with a family history being a significant risk factor. The Alzheimer’s Association reports, “Research shows that those who have a parent or sibling with Alzheimer's are more likely to develop the disease than those who do not have a first-degree relative with Alzheimer’s. Those who have more than one first-degree relative with Alzheimer’s are at an even higher risk.”
Cardiovascular disorders—including high blood pressure and high cholesterol—are proven contributing factors to the development of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Statistically, 80% of Alzheimer’s patients also have cardiovascular disorders. Regular exercise can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease by increasing both blood flow and oxygen to the brain.
The brain needs specific antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to stay healthy, and our typical American diet can cause inflammation and immune responses that negatively impact brain health. Eating the proper amount of healthy foods—including significant amounts of leafy green vegetables, colorful fruits, nuts and fish—can delay the onset of brain-related disorders by as many as 4.5 years.
So is there anything else you can do to support your brain health, if you’re at risk of a form of young-onset Alzheimer’s or early dementia? Scientific research shows that higher levels of carotenoids correlate with better cognitive performance in healthy adults. On that same note, studies also demonstrate that lowered carotenoid levels correlate with mild cognitive impairment, and patients with Alzheimer's disease are typically deficient in carotenoids. Additionally, Xanthophyll carotenoids have been shown to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain, a known cause of Alzheimer’s and other diseases. These carotenoids play a critical role in brain health, both in maintaining and optimizing cognition and reducing the risk of cognitive decline. In closing, supplementation with these targeted nutrients can support brain health and function in our communities, helping minimize the impact of Alzheimer’s, dementia and other brain diseases on our national and global populations.
Read our Brain Blog on "The Best Brain Supplements for Brain Health"
If you’re looking for smart holiday gift ideas for the people you care about, this Healthy Brain Holiday Gift Guide can help you select a gift that supports your loved ones’ brain health and ensure the memories of this season’s holidays aren’t forgotten.