Dementia and Brain Health

Dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease has become one of the most feared diseases because it essentially effects that which is most dear to us – our Brain!  More than 5 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s disease in varying stages, and President Ronald Reagan as well as singer Glenn Campbell have suffered from this malady.  Symptoms first appear commonly after 60 years of age.  It is ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, however, some believe it to be as high as the 3rd leading cause of death for seniors, after Cancer and Heart disease.

Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia or loss of cognitive functioning such as memory, reasoning, and behavior.  In the early stages, some will have mild memory problems, a condition called mild cognitive impairment.  Many individuals will develop trouble with word-finding, note spatial impairment,  and develop diminished judgement. As the disease advances, there is an inability to function, and the individual looses their autonomy, their ability to live life, and their ability to take care of themselves.  In its most severe stage, it will render the individual completely dependent on others.

It appears likely that damage to the brain starts as much as a decade before the cognitive and memory problems manifest.  Amyloid plaques and tau tangles develop as these abnormal protein deposits are characteristic of brains with Alzheimer’s disease.  As the disease progresses, neurons  stop functioning, nerve  connections are lost, and neurons die.  The initial area of the brain involved is the hippocampus which is the main area responsible for forming memory. By the end stage of Alzheimer’s disease, the brain shrinkage is significant and widespread.  No wonder why this is such a feared disease.  Loss of your brain means loss of your life, and loss of  that which makes up who you are, your brain.

The cause of Alzheimer’s is essentially poorly understood, however, importantly,  recent discussions have centered around its association with anxiety and stress.

Science Daily Article on Chronic Stress Damaging the Brain.

Those with chronic stress and anxiety are more prone to neuropsychiatric problems.  The good news is that this is something that we have a certain amount of control over.  This is not a one time episode of stress (final exams, visiting your in-laws), this is a chronic (the key word here) stress condition.  So lifestyles that lend themselves to chronic stress render us vulnerable to loosing our cognitive abilities in the longer run.  But even more importantly, we all have stress, but it is the way we deal with stress that can make the biggest difference whether we succumb to a life of chronic stress or not.

First we must give in to the real understanding and belief that there is a probable cause and effect association between chronic stress and dementia, as has been astutely suggested.  And for those of us who live within the confines of a chronically stressed life must ask ourselves (you know who you are) if the stress is really worth it?  When you read the elements above of what happens to your brain and to your livelihood for those who develop the most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s, it becomes very obvious in my view that indeed it couldn’t possibly be worth it.  Similarly, the NFL professional football player who plays for the love of the game of football, but risks the consequences of post-traumatic encephalopathy via repeated head trauma and concussions, must ask themselves, is football really worth it?  Today, particularly for those high stress jobs, gotta make the million-bucks workaholics, it must be asked:  Is the stress you put yourself through really worth the risk of dementia, neuropsychiatric disorders, and/or Alzheimer’s.  The answer has got to be a resounding NO!

Take stock in your life.  We all are more than likely aware of the negative effects of chronic stress on our heart, and on our immune system, but now the negative effects on the brain need to be placed in the equation as well.  Is it not time for you to do more yoga, take more vacations,  exercise more frequently, and socialize with a smile more often?  How about a nightly glass of resveratrol (Cabernet) at night with a nice George Strait, or James Taylor ballad to go with?


David Q Santos MD


Dr. Santos