I have reached the age I never thought I would even approach and with that comes worry that I will suffer from mild cognitive impairment, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.  

The incidence of Alzheimer’s is increasing alarmingly each year. Today more than 6 million Americans have been diagnosed with the disease and this number is projected to rise to nearly 13 million.  The following is information gleaned from a special report from the Alzheimer’s Association.  It is available on the organization’s website.

Causes

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) causes cognitive changes that are serious enough to be noticed by the person affected and by family members and friends, but may not affect the individual’s ability to carry out everyday activities. Approximately 12% to 18% of people age 60 or older are living with MCI. The population of Americans age 60 and older has grown more than 30% over the past decade, and the number of older individuals in the United States is expected to increase significantly by 2050. These aging individuals are potentially at higher risk of developing MCI.

MCI is characterized by subtle changes in memory and thinking.

MCI is sometimes confused with normal aging, but it is not part of the typical aging process. A variety of factors can cause MCI, so it is viewed as a broad set of symptoms; this can make the diagnosis of MCI challenging for affected individuals and physicians.

When a person exhibits symptoms of MCI and has biomarker evidence of the brain changes characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease, they are described as having MCI due to Alzheimer’s disease — a subtype of MCI.  

The term MCI due to Alzheimer’s disease is used to describe MCI with the presence of Alzheimer’s disease-related biomarkers. Individuals with MCI may have a higher risk of developing dementia. Studies estimate that 10% to 15% of individuals with MCI go on to develop dementia each year.  About one-third of people with MCI develop dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease within five years.  However, some individuals with MCI revert to normal cognition or do not have additional cognitive decline.  

Identifying which individuals with MCI are more likely to develop dementia is a major goal of current research. Distinguishing between cognitive issues resulting from normal aging, those associated with the broad syndrome of MCI, and those related to MCI due to Alzheimer’s disease is critical in helping individuals, their families and physicians prepare for future treatment and care.

The number of people living with MCI increases with age. One in four individuals age 80 to 84 experience symptoms of MCI.

 MCI can be caused by a variety of factors, such as medication side effects, sleep deprivation or anxiety. MCI may also develop as part of neurologic, neurodegenerative, systemic or psychiatric disorders, as well as stroke or other vascular disease and traumatic brain injury. MCI can also arise from the brain changes that occur in Alzheimer’s disease.

Estimates suggest that roughly 5 million Americans have MCI due to Alzheimer’s disease. Because MCI develops years before dementia and potentially affects individuals younger than 65, there are likely far more than 5 million Americans — of any age — with MCI due to Alzheimer’s disease. “

Diet

With this information in mind I was particularly interested in a recent New York Times article titled “Can Certain Foods Really Stave Off Dementia?” According to the author, scientists still do not know for certain what caused Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia and there is no medication that can reverse it.  We do know that people with certain conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes are more likely than those without such conditions to experience age-related cognitive decline.

And the risks of experiencing those conditions can be increased by poor diet and lack of exercise, suggesting there are things you can do to lower the risk of developing dementia. Two diets in particular, the Mediterranean and MIND, both of which encourage fresh produce, legumes and nuts, fish, whole grains and olive oil have been shown in scientific studies to offer strong protection again cognitive decline.  

One study, published in 2017, analyzed the diets and cognitive performance of more than 5,900 older U.S. adults. Researchers found that those who most closely adhered to either the Mediterranean or MIND diet had a 30 to 35% lower risk of cognitive impairment than those who adhered to these diets less closely.  

According to one expert: “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.”  One big change is to increase consumption of leafy greens which are packed with nutrients and fiber. Another is to add colorful produce to your plate. Diets high in flavonoids — natural substances found in colorful fruits and vegetables, chocolate and wine —were less likely than those who consumed fewer flavonoids to report signs of cognitive aging.  Berries are also good sources of fiber and antioxidants, and offer cognitive benefits as do many types of fatty fish. Fish have long been associated with better brain health and reduced risk of age-related dementia.  Nuts (walnuts in particular), olive oil,  green tea and whole grains also appear to benefit heart health and cognitive function.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  maxsherman339@gmail.com.