There are many lifestyle factors within our control that can increase our risk of developing dementias if we don’t make the right choices about them now.
One of the lifelong struggles we, as human beings, do – or should be doing – battle with is being consistently honest both with ourselves (I submit this may be the hardest part of this battle because our capacity for self-deception seems to have no limits) and with others.
I have written here before about the interconnected relationship between honesty and trust. When we are dishonest with someone, we break their trust. Continue reading
Going Gentle Into That Good Night has and will continue to discussed the connection between lifestyle choices and an increased risk of developing dementia. Some of these lifestyle choices include alcohol abuse and addiction, prescription drug use, abuse, and addiction, illegal drug use and addiction, and “smart drug” use and abuse.
So maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “Well, I don’t make any of those risky lifestyle choices, so I don’t have to worry about neurological damage and developing dementia.” And you would be wrong. Continue reading
Prescription addiction is a national problem in the United States. Although there has been some public acknowledgement of its existence in general terms recently, the real scope of how deep and pervasive prescription addiction is in this country is still mostly hidden from public view.
Because of this, Big Pharma and the medical profession still pushes the two classes of drugs – central nervous system (CNS) depressants (“downers”) and central nervous system (CNS) stimulants (“uppers”) – at the core of prescription addiction insistently and without restraint. Continue reading
This blog has discussed the use of drugs designed for specific kinds of attention-deficit disorders being used by people without an attention-deficit disorder for cognitive enhancement and the risk such usages portends toward an eventual development of lifestyle dementia.
Anything that alters brain chemistry (legal or illegal) introduces the risk of dementia down the road. We must understand that. It seems, however, that we – both the medical community who blithely prescribes these legal brain-altering chemical compositions and we the people, who decide for ourselves and choose to take both legal and illegal brain-altering chemical compositions because they seem to promise a short-term benefit (or because we want to numb our brains and not deal with life as it is and comes) – don’t understand that. Continue reading
In my book review of The End of Absence by Michael Harris, we see how an increasingly constant interaction with, reliance on, and addiction to technology is creating devastating effects on us neurologically.
Among these effects are dementia-like symptoms: loss of short-term memory, easy distraction, lack of focus, loss of critical thinking skills, and loss of executive functions.
These effects are happening to people all around us just like you and me. The effects don’t discriminate: even the very young are affected just as profoundly as others of varying ages.
In Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, a book everybody should read, the discussion centers on the neurological effects of 24/7 technology connection in the actual composition of the brain.
The research and the science is sobering, especially in light of how it points to the emergence of another lifestyle dementia that is already beginning to affect people, and will increasingly affect vast numbers of people at earlier and earlier ages.
Lifestyle dementias are dementias we choose because we adopt or don’t control or eliminate the lifestyle factors that cause the dementias.
Alcohol abuse and addiction is one of those lifestyle choices. How we treat our bodies (food, exercise, etc.) is another lifestyle choice. The quality and quantity of our sleep is yet another lifestyle choice.
And our relationship with technology presents even one more lifestyle choice. A recent Pew Research Center survey revealed that 20% of Americans report that they are online almost constantly.
That is 1 in every 5 people here in the United States. It is not surprising to me, but it is disturbing to me for many reasons.
Because my whole career has been intricately involved with technology, I’m uniquely qualified to discuss this since I’ve always made choices to limit my exposure, instinctively, I suppose, realizing the dangers, and I continue to do so because my brain, for better or worse, is the best asset I have and I don’t want my choices to be the reason I lose any functionality it has.
Different parts of the brain are stimulated with how we receive information.
Images light up a different area of the brain than words do. Technology lights up a totally different area of the brain than either images or words do.
Which area of our brains get lit up the most often is the part of the brain that becomes dominant and we use the other parts less and less.
The brain is the only organ in which there is no cellular regenation. Once the cells in the brain die, they’re gone for good. With time, this cellular death becomes widespread and we experience dementia.
The problem with our increasing interaction exclusively with technology (smart phones and tablets have definitely made this easier) is that technology is purposefully designed to stimulate the part of the brain that deals with emotions.
Because of the emotional stimulation that technology elicits, it consistently bypasses logical, analytic processing of information and the desire and ability to discern between what’s true and false, what’s right and wrong, and what’s valuable and what’s not.
The effect on us is that we are unaware of what’s happening behind the scenes to our brains as we’re tethered to technology, so we don’t realize we’re not logically and analytically processing information coming in and that we’re rapidly losing the desire and ability to discern between what is true and false, what is right and wrong, and what is valuable and what is not.
It is simply disappearing without our awareness that we’re losing the very things that make us unique as humans and which are the most precious gifts we have been given.
The end result is that in the short term we become shallow (gullible, unthinking, ignorant, and imprisoned in a shrinking world that is simply a mirrored reflection of our narcissistic selves) and in the long term that we lose our cognitive abilities altogether.
It’s not to late for most of us to turn this around and do everything in our power to make choices that will stave off this lifestyle dementia.
But each of us has to make the choice for ourselves. Some of us won’t. Some of us don’t believe this is happening. Some of us don’t care.
However, for those that will, that do believe this is happening, and that do care, here are a few ways to get started:
- Unplug from everything at a set time every day and stick to it. Replace the time that you would have spent with technology with an activity that involves the other parts of your brain. These can include hobbies, reading, putting together jigsaw puzzles, playing board games or cards with other people, crossword puzzles, sudoku, and other types of brain-intensive puzzles.
- Don’t stay plugged in all day. Do what you need to do (check social media, email, texts, etc.) at set time-delimited times each day (I generally check mine early morning, noon, and 6 pm, giving myself 15 minutes each time and no more). Otherwise, I’m off the grid and working on other productive things.
- Unplug completely for 24 hours each week. No phone, no internet, no social media, no nothing. And do something else entirely away from it all. This may, especially if we’re addicted to technology, be quite uncomfortable and unsettling at first (generations before us lived this way and they not only survived just fine, but I suspect they were happier and better off), but eventually you will absolutely crave your unplugged 24 hours and it may lead you to more complete unplugging than that in time.
We only get one brain in our lives. Everything we do supports it or destroys it. Once destruction happens, it’s permanent and it can’t be undone.
Let’s make sure we’re doing everything in our power with our choices to support our brains and not destroy them.
In “Lifestyle Dementia: Underdiscussed, Overlooked, But a Very Real and Present Danger,” and “Is the Precipitous Rise in Dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease Over the Last Twenty to Thirty Years Linked to Lifestyle?,” we see that certain lifestyle factors and choices can make the likelihood of developing dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease more probable.
Two lifestyle factors that can contribute to the development of dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease – and the onset of these is usually before age 65 – are chronic, long-term alcohol abuse and alcoholism. This type of dementia is called alcohol-related dementia and can manifest itself in various forms.
This post will take a look at how chronic, long-term alcohol abuse and alcoholism affects the brain and what the behaviors and symptoms of the dementia looks like.
We all know that drinking enough alcohol at one time impairs the brain. Common symptoms include slurring words, exhibiting general motor impairment, including stumbling and walking off-balance, making poor decisions (like driving, for example), being less able to hear sound at a normal volume, experiencing vision problems, and being unable to think clearly.
These behaviors occur because alcohol depresses the central nervous system , causing it to slow down its responses and reactions. The brain stem (made up of the Pons, Medulla, and Midbrain), which regulates breathing, heart rate, and consciousness, as well all other areas of the brain are affected by alcohol:
- Frontal – involved in movement, problem-solving, concentrating, thinking, mood, behavior, and personality
- Temporal – involved in hearing, language, and memory
- Parietal – involved in sensation awareness, language, perception, attention, and body awareness
- Occipital – involved in vision and perception
- Cerebellum – involved in posture, balance, and coordination of movement
Chronic, long-term alcohol abuse and alcoholism have even more devastating – and permanent – effects on the brain, eventually leading to alcohol-related dementia.
Usually the first noticeable symptoms of chronic, long-term alcohol abuse and alcoholism are cognitive. Memory loss is common, but a unique feature of memory loss with people who are chronic, long-term alcohol abusers or alcoholics is confabulation.
Confabulation occurs when, instead of recalling accurate memories because of the damage to the brain, the person distorts, makes up, and misinterprets memories about themselves, others, and the world around them.
As difficult as it is to believe for those on the receiving end of confabulation, there is no conscious intent to be dishonest. It is simply the result of extensive neurological damage.
One of the most challenging aspects of people who confabulate is that although they are giving blatantly false information, the information can appear to be coherent, internally consistent, and relatively normal.
People who confabulate have incorrect memories that run the gambit from slight, almost imperceptible changes to the most outlandish made-up stories you can imagine.
The maddening thing about this is that they generally very confident – to the point of arguing down anyone (because they know the memory is fabricated) who tries to correct or challenge them – about their recollections, despite overwhelming concrete evidence that contradicts them.
Other signs of alcohol-related dementia emerge as:
- Inappropriate behavior, including words and actions
- Loss of executive function, including organizing and planning
- Slowed thinking, reactions, and speaking
- Garbled speech
- Trouble executing basic skills functions like adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing
- Decreased ability to concentrate
- Decreased ability to complete tasks
- Trouble with balance
- Diminished hearing
With alcohol-related dementia, as with all other dementias, the person who has alcohol-related dementia loses the self-awareness that anything is wrong, both neurologically and behaviorally.
Most cases of alcohol-related dementia involve global neurological deterioration. Everything is affected.
However, two very specific types of alcohol-related dementia, Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome (known together as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome), which are the result of a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency, have key features specific to them. There can be some reversal of symptoms with B1 (thiamine) therapy, but there is still permanent neurological damage and concurrent alcohol-related dementia.
Wernicke encephalopathy (commonly known as “wet brain”) causes damage in the thalamus and hypothalamus. Its symptoms include:
- Severe confusion and decreased mental activity that can lead to comas and death
- Loss of muscle coordination (ataxia) that can cause tremors in the legs
- Vision deterioration including abnormal eye movements, drooping eyelids, and persistent double vision
As symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy disappear, Korsakoff syndrome symptoms appear. These include:
- Loss of ability to form new memories
- Moderate to severe loss of all memories
- Visual and auditory hallucinations
Malcolm Young, the 61-year-old co-founder and guitarist for the band AC/DC, has been moved to a nursing home and his family has confirmed that he has dementia (he’s unable to remember any of the band’s songs).
Young’s addiction to alcohol is well-known. Although he sought rehabilitation treatment for alcoholism during the band’s tour in 1988, it appears that he relapsed (the statistics on the efficacy of alcohol rehab are grim: from 50 to 90% of people who’ve been through treatment relapse, often, over a period of time, habitually consuming even more alcohol than they did before entering treatment) and never sought treatment again.
In April of this year, Young was hospitalized with what was described to the media as a stroke (chronic alcohol abuse has very detrimental effects on blood, including causing the platelets to clump together and form clots, and these clots, when they travel to the brain are responsible for strokes), so this would be entirely consistent with what we know about Young’s lifestyle.
There are systemic physiological effects of chronic, long-term alcohol abuse and alcoholism, including nerve damage in the arms and legs (peripheral neuropathy), liver damage (cirrhosis), heart damage, and kidney damage.
Concurrent with all of that is the irreversible neurological damage to the brain that results in alcohol-related dementia, which can emerge as early as 30 years of age, but more commonly begins emerging after the age of 50 in chronic, long-term alcohol abusers and alcoholics.
Drinking alcohol in moderation is fine. But I urge you to take an honest look at your drinking patterns and behavior. If you find that you are a chronic, long-term alcohol abuser or an alcoholic, then it’s time today to find a way to stop drinking alcohol for good.
But no one else can do that for you. Only you can make the choice to stop drinking alcohol and then follow through with actually doing it for the rest of your life.
And here’s the key: until the rest of your life becomes more important than alcohol, you will be unsuccessful at choosing and taking action to stop drinking alcohol.
Because you are the only one who can take the action, every time you drink alcohol, as a chronic, long-term alcohol abuser or an alcoholic, you show yourself and the rest of the world the choice you’re making and you show yourself and the rest of the world what the most important thing in your life is.
And no one can change that but you.