Aging America: Tips for Reducing Alzheimer’s Risk and Improving Brain Health

By Dr. Kathleen O’Connell, Chief Medical Officer, UnitedHealthcare Medicare & Retirement, Colorado ~

When the 2020 U.S. Census was published, it revealed a startling fact: one in six Americans turned 65 or older that year, marking a fivefold increase in that demographic compared to 100 years before in 1920. As more Baby Boomers approach 65, the number of older Americans is projected to continue to increase in the coming years. When considered in light of the fact that age is the greatest known risk factor for dementia, and that most people living with the condition are 65 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the “greying” of America brings an urgency to educate more people on brain health basics in order to help reduce or manage their risk for dementia.

June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, and serves as a critical reminder that more than 6.7 million Americans currently live with Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia and one of the deadliest diseases in the U.S. today. This devastating disease has no cure and is also on the rise: the number of people living with the disease is projected to nearly double to 14 million by 2060.

While these statics can feel alarming, understanding more about the disease and its risk factors, and also learning more about brain health, can help many older adults feel more in control. For many people, following a few simple tips can meaningfully support brain health, reduce their risk of disease, and help delay the potential onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia.

  • Get regular exercise and avoid being physically inactiveRecent research has shown that regular, moderate physical exercise may reduce the risk for developing Alzheimer’s and slow cognitive decline. While more research is needed to understand exactly how exercise may help guard against dementia, studies show physical activity is associated with better cognitive functioning and has many other important health benefits that address the key risk factors for dementia, such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity and physical inactivity.
  • Cultivate healthy lifestyle behaviors: In addition to exercise, cultivating other healthy lifestyle behaviors and habits, such as eating a healthy diet, taking steps to maintain healthy blood pressure levels, managing or working to prevent type 2 diabetes and maintaining a healthy weight may all contribute to better brain and overall health. Putting good habits in place can help lead to big results and improved quality of life.
  • Get treatment for hearing loss: Hearing loss is one of the main risk factors for dementia, and it can contribute to cognitive decline. Be sure to have a professional check your hearing to detect, manage or treat hearing loss early. For people with Medicare Advantage plans, hearing coverage may be one of the extra benefits included in your plan not covered by Original Medicare.
  • Spend time with othersNearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are socially isolated, and research from the National Institute on Aging has shown social isolation is associated with a roughly 50 percent increased risk of dementia. Spending time regularly with friends or family and being active in the community all are important ways older adults can maintain social connections and avoid becoming socially isolated.
  • Sleep on it: Sleep is essential for brain maintenance, and not getting enough sleep can impair memory and cognitive functioning. Nearly 35 percent of adults get less than the recommended seven or eight hours per night, and it can be even harder for some older adults to get and stay asleep. Practicing good sleep habits, like limiting caffeine, turning off devices and keeping regular bedtime and waking routines can all help you enjoy better sleep.

In addition to these five steps, it is important to have a memory screening done each year. Taking this step means creating a record that can help your health care practitioner track your cognitive and brain health over time. This record helps them to catch or diagnose memory disorders early on. 

Memory screenings can be performed during your Annual Wellness Visit, which is available at no cost to anyone on Medicare.

Lastly, if you have a Medicare Advantage plan, you should know that you may have access to extra benefits and features not offered through Original Medicare that can support healthy lifestyle behaviors and contribute to better brain health. For example, dental, hearing and vision coverage are not covered under Original Medicare but are included in many Medicare Advantage plans. Other valuable benefits can include fitness memberships and 24/7 access to a registered nurse by phone.

If you feel like you or a loved one might be suffering from symptoms of dementia, it’s important to talk with your health care provider.

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