Gross: Fending off dementia

Hailey Gross

Cancer, old age, car crashes, heart disease — this is how many of us think of death and imagine that we will die. In our youth, our bodies are — for the most part — virile and strong, and we cherish that. Thus, it is the body that we fear will fail us first as our ages creep ever-closer to triple digits.

As of 2011, the average life expectancy in the United States hovered at about 79, and it will only continue to climb. One result of this is that it is increasingly our fate for our minds go before our bodies.

Though death and illness of any kind are devastating, dementia can be particularly poignant because it leaves its victims alive but not actually “there.” The most common — or at least the most well-known — of these forms is Alzheimer’s disease, where a person’s memory and behavior progressively worsen over time, the rates differing depending upon the individual and the treatment given.

For many people whose relatives suffer from Alzheimer’s, it is an extremely painful process to watch as a loved one slowly “fades” away from a previous consciousness. They are alive but unable to take note of things that before filled their lives. People with Alzheimer’s slowly deteriorate until complications from the dementia cause their death.

Having had a grandparent with Alzheimer’s when I was very young, I know that it is a terribly sad and confusing thing for any child — or family member — to endure. Just as we sympathize with those whose relatives are lost to cancer or other illnesses, we must sympathize with those families stricken by dementia.

Luckily, research into the subject is conducted continuously, and each year, it seems we may be closer to having some answers if not the final cure. For example, a DNA study published by the journal Nature Genetics has found that there are more genes than previously thought — 21 — linked to causing the disease. Additionally, the findings seem to indicate that the onset of Alzheimer’s is affected by the body’s immune system, which not only hints at future treatment but at the possibility for prevention.

Unfortunately, researchers and doctors seem to have little idea of the exact cause of the disease, even to this day. Without knowledge of causation, finding the cure will continue to evade researchers. Like various forms of cancer, Alzheimer’s has a “month” each year in which the majority of fundraising and charity events occur, which is September. Obviously, September of this year has come and gone, but these months are more of publicity markers than anything else.

Donations and charity can always help the future of sufferers, as funding is necessary to keep up the constant research that is conducted. Of course, this is an obvious answer to many illnesses, and we can’t possible donate chunks of cash to each and every cause. However, if Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia have touched your life, then you know every reason why you should consider donating.

Most importantly, though, we need to take care of ourselves. As hinted at in the study showing that Alzheimer’s has ties to the immune system, taking care of our bodies can help prevent the onset of mental and physical illnesses alike. A study published by the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that middle-aged people who exercised regularly were 40 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia than others in their age group. This means that physical health can have a direct effect on what our mental state will be.

As with cancer or any terminal illness, the risk cannot entirely be avoided, but if there are measures that will lessen the chance, we should all take them. It’s hard to see why anyone remains glued to their couch when exercise can increase mental longevity — if not for yourself, then for your family who will be forced to watch you deteriorate.

We are constantly told to exercise, eat right, stay fit and be healthy. We agree, for aesthetic purposes most of the time, to do our best. But few people truly have the foresight to take care of their bodies for the sake of future health. Now, when few of us are even worrying about preventing facial wrinkles or sore joints, it is difficult to see dementia as a reason to stay fit.

For those of us who have had someone close suffer Alzheimer’s, or those who are — rightfully — scared that it may occur, it serves as very good motivation.

It may be a long time before families stop suffering due to Alzheimer’s disease. In the meantime, it is not only our right but our duty to protect ourselves from this terrible disease.