Lifestyle Dementia: Underdiscussed, Overlooked, But a Very Real and Present Danger

Today’s post will discuss lifestyle dementia. Many of the people, especially the elderly and very elderly, suffering from dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease today either have the genetic markers for it or – and this is my opinion, but I see strong evidence to support it with the precipitous explosion of dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease – are suffering from the effects of living on a toxic earth, eating toxic food, and breathing toxic air.

However, another group of dementia sufferers is emerging.

They are younger and have very different lifestyles than their elderly and very elderly counterparts with whom they share the same commonalities of dementia. This group of people has dementia that is directly related to lifestyle.

How we live our lives is a series of choices that we make consciously or unconsciously along the way. That is what becomes our lifestyle. Our lifestyle – all of those choices – has short-term effects and long-term effects. 

The long-term effects of those lifestyle choices are beginning to be seen in the growing number of people suffering with lifestyle dementia. One of the generations most noticeably – and disproportionate to the incidence in the expected populations of the elderly and very elderly – affected is the Baby Boomer generation (people born between 1943 and 1960, according to William Strauss and Neil Howe in their book The Fourth Turning, which I highly recommend that everyone read).

I strongly suspect that one of the lifestyle choices, which I’ll discuss later, that was prevalent with this generation during the 1960’s and early 1970’s is a key contributor to the development of the lifestyle dementia we see emerging among this age group today.

Before we proceed with describing lifestyle choices that could lead to lifestyle dementia, it’s important to understand what the word dementia describes. Any loss of function of and/or damage to the internal components of the brain (neurological, chemical, or physical) falls under the broad category of dementia when describing the brain’s condition.

(Inset note: Alzheimer’s Disease is the shrinkage of the size of the brain from the outside in, brought on by a specific condition that occurs in the nerve cells of the brain. Therefore, it’s important to remember that all people suffering from dementia don’t necessarily have Alzheimer’s Disease, while all people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease have a very specific kind of dementia, commonly called tangles and plaques.)

So dementia is a condition – or  state – of the brain. Like many nouns, this condition or state has adjectives that describe where the loss of function or damage is or specific identified abnormalities of the brain that affect function and cognition. Therefore, when we see the term vascular dementia, for example, the loss of function and/or damage to the brain is related to the blood vessels in the brain. 

So what kind of lifestyle choices can lead to lifestyle dementia?

diabetes-insulin-dementiaIn the last twenty to thirty years, the western world has adopted a supersized fast-food diet, a very sedentary lifestyle, and an “ignorance is bliss” attitude toward taking care of their health with regular medical checkups and changes in their lifestyles to address health issues like diabetes and high blood pressure.

Unchecked or uncontrolled, both high blood pressure and diabetes directly affect the health of the blood vessels in the brain, leading to widespread blood vessel damage and neurological cell death, which is the cause of vascular dementia. 

alcoholAnother lifestyle choice that can lead to lifestyle dementia is alcohol abuse. While it’s generally believed that alcohol doesn’t directly kill brain cells, alcohol abuse creates key vitamin deficiencies that adversely affect the brain and adversely affects the liver’s ability to remove toxins from the body. Research shows that women who abuse alcohol begin to exhibit the adverse effects in half the time that men who abuse alcohol do.  

This article from the National Institute of Health gives a very clear and understandable explanation of how alcohol abuse results in long-term damage to the brain. The specific type of dementia that occurs with alcohol abuse is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which occurs because of a thiamine (B1) deficiency.

A third lifestyle choice that can lead to lifestyle dementia is drug abuse. I noted earlier that one lifestyle choice seems to point to why there is such a high incidence of older Baby Boomers showing signs of dementia at earlier ages than their elderly and very elderly counterparts do. I believe that this phenomenon has a direct correlation to the pervasive and unabashed drug experimentation within this age group in the 1960’s and early 1970’s.

A few years ago, I watched a documentary entitled The Drug Years on the History Channel (it was originally produced by the Sundance Channel and VH1). If you have not seen it, you should (Netflix and Hulu subscribers will find it in the Documentaries section). It’s shocking in some ways, but very informative in others. If you’re like me, you’ll watch it shaking your head a lot. But there’s a lot of history that explains things before some of us (like me) were born or cognizant and it also explains our continuing prevalent and unabashed drug culture in the U.S. today.

The series had a lot of commentary by Martin Torgoff, who wrote 2005’s Can’t Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age 1945-2000. Intrigued by the title (the first part of the title is the mind-altering drugstitle of one of my favorite songs by the band Traffic), I read the book after watching the documentary. I don’t believe that any book I’ve ever read scared me as much as Torgoff’s book did. And as much head-shaking as I did during the documentary, I did even more reading this book.

As Torgoff described the drug abuse of the 1960’s and early 1970’s and quoted well-known and not-so-well-known people about their own drug use and abuse, it became evident that there was an uninhibited desire to find, use, and abuse any substance that substantially altered the brain. The more altered the brain was, the “better” the experience.

With the psychedelic agents in LSD, acid, psilocybin mushrooms, and peyote, perceptions became altered, hallucinations occurred, and illusions became real.  In short, this generation liberally sought every possible means of chemically inducing the manifestations of dementia. In the process, neurological damage occurred and now, with age, the effects of that damage are becoming more evident with the emergence of lifestyle dementia.

To be clear and to be fair, I’m not saying that every case of early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia or other types of dementia occurring at a younger-than-usual age is the result of drug abuse. That’s much too broad a brush stroke to paint with. But a recent study showed a pretty strong link between dementia and teenage/young adult lifestyle choices for people without a family history of the diseases.

And the neurological damage from this lifestyle choice continues with the use of more modern drugs like Ecstasy, Adderall, and “bath salts,” which are psychoactive and which stimulate the brain beyond its normal capacity and can produce hallucinations, seizures, and even death.

Bath salts, which have become popular in the last couple of years, permanently create irreversible neurological damage because of the simultaneous and voluminous suckerpunch all at once to the brain with the chemical effects of amphetamines and cocaine.

It remains to be seen, although it certainly will occur, what lifestyle dementias develop among the Millennials using these drugs today.

Some things happen to us in life through no fault of our own. However, we have choices in how we live our lives, and we can make positive lifestyle choices that, while they may not preclude any of us from developing Alzheimer’s Disease and dementias down the road, will ensure that we’ve done every within our power to ensure that our choices and actions haven’t contributed to it.

17 thoughts on “Lifestyle Dementia: Underdiscussed, Overlooked, But a Very Real and Present Danger

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  2. Reblogged this on Dealing with Dementia and commented:
    I believe that “Lifestyle Dementia” is a very real threat to the aging population. As a child with two parents diagnosed with dementia, I started researching the topic, and in addition to some of the concepts the author provides, know that things like being sociable and having meaning and purpose are additional ways to help battle this disease. It is not always something you can avoid — but hoping you might find something in here to challenge your thoughts on the subject. Intrigued.

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  5. A friend’s relative is currently hospitalised in a state of dazed, childlike, confusion. She has been a substance abuser and has had past episodes of schizophrenia. She is not psychotic this episode. No substances showed up in toxicology tests. Her parents suspect synthetic drug use. There is some liver function impairment and she is on vitamin B. She has scored13 on a dementia test, where the typical score for dementia patients is 20. She has been in this state for approx 4 weeks. Does anyone know if synthetic drug use can result in this state and if it is permanent? Her family are very concerned?

    • Jan, synthetic drug use can definitely result in this state as it does quite a bit of permanent damage to the brain. Synthetic drugs are constantly being chemically reformulated to fly under the normal toxicology screens, but molecular changes to chemical structures can wreak havoc on the brain, so this is dangerous business all the way around (I’ve included a link to a good article on bath salts in particular, which are increasingly the synthetic drug of choice: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/spc/multimedia/bath-salts/).

      I have a cousin who, after using bath salts for about a year, is exhibiting confusion and memory loss consistent with dementia.

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