Research shows dementia is avoidable for most engaged older people

I was shocked to learn only 10 percent of dementia cases can be traced back to genetics. In fact, it may be less than that.

Dr. David Argus is an physician, cancer researcher and author. He serves as a professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine and Viterbi School of Engineering.

While appearing on the Howard Stern Show earlier this year, Dr. Argus made some startling revelations about longevity and dementia. The good news is that people have far more control over both of those fates than they’ve been led to believe.

He acknowledged dementia can be genetic, which means little can be done to prevent it or cure it. Dr. Argus cited the tragic case of actor Bruce Willis as an example. Bruce was recently diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, which leads to a progressive degeneration of the frontal and temporal lobes in the brain.

“Dementia is horrible. It is one of the most difficult things to watch in a loved one,” he explained. “But we can’t measure this organ, the brain, at all. We don’t have a way of looking at brain function that is very accurate.

“The brain is probably the most important organ in our body to define us as a human, but we don’t know how the brain works and that’s very frustrating,” he added. “So, with most of these dementia, like Alzheimer’s and the others, we don’t really know why they happen.”

Yet, the doctor shared an important finding that should give many seasoned citizens peace of mind, if they act now.

After buying the database, Google sequenced all the genes in a search for the one gene which influences longevity in hopes of finding a way to help people live longer.

“What percentage of longevity do you think is genetic?” Dr. Argus asked. “Only 4 percent, which means 96% is in your control. To me, that is the most positive study in the world.”

Researchers discovered that every year someone delays retirement works to reduce the incidence of Alzheimer’s by almost 3.5% to 4%.

“So, in a 20-year span, that can be a 60 to 70% reduction in the incidence of Alzheimer’s,” said Dr. Argus.

Make yourself uncomfortable

To avoid the onset of dementia, people need to make themselves uncomfortable every day.

“The saying, ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it,’ is real. You need to make yourself uncomfortable,” said Dr. Argus.

“Going to work challenges your brain,” Stern replied. “But you’re right, these guys retire and then their brain turns to mush.”

Dr. Argus noted that most people who were functional in their 90s, we still engaged in some way.

“They don’t have to do their primary job, but they’re doing something that gets them out of their comfort zone. And that’s the key,” he explained. “How many people retire and just sit around and play golf or watch TV? They don’t do very well.”

Pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone works to get our adrenaline going, and that uncomfortableness is what keeps people engaged and going.

What can people do to make themselves mentally uncomfortable and, hopefully, keep their minds sharp in the process? Here are some suggestions:

1. Take a class

Rather than watching other people talk on television all day, take a class at a local university, college or recreation center.

We are made to be lifelong learners. Developing a new skill or actively seeking new information, works to keep our brains functioning to process, store and recall that data.

2. Create something

According to a study funded by the National Endowment of the Arts, when our minds are actively involved in the creative process, it works to stimulate our “working memory.”

The creative process allows our brains to develop new combinations of existing ideas, concepts and
perceptions that have been stored in the brain over time. In other words, creativity requires imagination, and there is no limit to what our minds can creative out of thin air.

So, write, paint, compose, build or invent. Every time you do, you’re sharpening your mind.

3. Engage with nature

An article in Harvard Business Review, noted that looking at trees and leaves — instead of electronic devices — reduces anxiety, lowers your heart rate, soothes, and allows your brain to make connections more easily.

By doing so, we are more easily able to connect existing notions, thoughts and images to form a new, relevant and usable concept.

4. Play games of strategy

Rather than spending time playing mindless games on your computer or smart phone, like a slot machine, engage in games that require thinking, strategy and skill.

Chess, for example, requires all three. You have to develop a plan to win the game, and respond to roadblocks created your opponent. There is nothing random about chess. It’s also virtually impossible to play chess by yourself, so it requires you to engage with people, too.

If those type of games aren’t to your liking, then consider crossword puzzles and real puzzles.

The bottom line is that you have more control over your longevity and the likelihood of dealing with dementia that you realize. Find a way to make yourself mentally uncomfortable today.