There is an old adage that you “can’t beat Father Time”. No matter what we do the aging process eventually brings a steady decline in our bodily functions as we endure decreased strength and muscle mass, reduced bone density, stiffer joints, and diminished elasticity in our blood vessels and arteries. However, perhaps no age-related decline is more frightening than the loss of our mental capacity in the form of dementia. Dementia is not a specific disease and instead refers collectively to an impaired ability to reason, remember, make decisions, or conduct your daily activities; it may also manifest with personality changes and/or loss of social skills. While Alzheimer’s disease is the most common and well-known type of dementia, accounting for 60-80% of cases, there are other forms such as vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, and frontotemporal dementia. Each of these types of dementia brings challenges and difficulties not only to the individual but also to their families and loved ones. Currently, there are over 6 million people in the U.S. living with dementia, and that number is expected to more than double over the next 30 years as our overall population ages.
Our ability to think, reason, remember, and direct our own lives is fundamental to who we are, and I suspect that most of us fear the loss of identity and independence that comes with dementia. While our biological destiny may be inevitable, knowing our risk factors and identifying things we might change is a useful exercise. A recent Canadian study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health created an online questionnaire that both predicts your risk of developing dementia and indicates areas where lifestyle improvements can be made (the site also has several other health and lifestyle calculators so be sure to explore the whole suite). To generate their calculator, the researchers enlisted roughly 50,000 men and women in Ottawa who were over the age of 55 years. Their health and medical records were followed anonymously for 5 years and the aggregate data was used to develop a dementia calculator. Then the algorithm was tested on another 25,000 volunteers to validate its predictive ability, which was confirmed to be greater than 80% accurate. It is important to note that this calculator doesn’t take into account familial history or genetic factors that could skew your individual results. Nonetheless, it does provide a reasonable estimation of most people’s dementia risk with the limitation that it only predicts for the next 5-year period of your life. Still, any tool that can help us understand our risks and potentially make lifestyle changes is worth exploring so check it out.