Sometimes I put my keys in the fridge or spend 10 minutes looking for a hat that is already on my head. No big deal. We all do these things, right?
But whenever this happens, I can't help worrying about the prospect of losing my faculties. Perhaps one day I'll go to the basement and, instead of remembering five minutes later what I went down there for, I won't ever remember.
We take our wits for granted, but people lose them all the time to dementia, a syndrome whose symptoms include loss of memory, judgment and reasoning and changes in mood and behaviour. Usually associated with Alzheimer's disease, dementia can also be an expression of treatable conditions such as depression, thyroid disease, infections or drug interactions.
Studies show that indicators for the loss of brain power can show up years in advance. Does this mean we can we stop it?
What the experts say
"People who drank three to five cups of coffee per day had 60 to 70 per cent lower risk for dementia and even more so for Alzheimer's 20 years later, compared to those who didn't drink coffee at all. There are studies showing that coffee is neuroprotective. Coffee drinking is associated with lower risk of diabetes, and diabetes is associated with dementia and Alzheimer's. What you do in early and mid-life is important. Alzheimer's-related brain changes may start as early as 20 or 30 years before [the disease is diagnosed]. High blood pressure, obesity, physical inactivity, alcohol consumption - all these factors at mid-life affect the risk of dementia later in life."
MIIA KIVIPELTO, professor of neurology, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm
"The findings from our study were that those low in neuroticism and high in extroversion had half the risk of dementia. Those who were active and socially integrated also had a lower risk. While we know certain personality traits can increase dementia, a socially active lifestyle may buffer this risk effect. Results from previous studies have shown mid-life stress [has the same] effect as late-life stress on dementia risk. Neuroticism increases stress; this may relate to damage to the hippocampus in the brain."
HUI-XIN WANG, researcher, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm
"We don't know whether vitamin D protects against dementia, but it is extremely important. There are ample receptors for vitamin D in the brain, and they wouldn't be there if there weren't a purpose for them. Eating a high-glycemic load has been linked to Alzheimer's and dementia, as has lack of fruits and vegetables. These contain antioxidants that are protective for the brain. Omega-3 fats are important for brain health."
AILEEN BURFORD-MASON, nutritionist, Toronto
"Ginkgo biloba did not lower the risk of developing dementia, specifically not Alzheimer's. You can see very subtle changes in the brain function of the children of people with Alzheimer's disease years before they might develop it themselves. Children of people with Alzheimer's have about a three times greater risk of developing it. This is a major area of research right now. We do know that high blood pressure and diabetes are risk factors."
JEFF WILLIAMSON, professor of medicine and geriatrics, Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Kulynych Center for Memory Research, Winston Salem, North Carolina
"Ginkgo extract has been shown to work as well as the approved drugs to slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease. Compelling data from numerous clinical trials shows its benefits in treating symptoms."
HYLA CASS, MD, author of Supplement Your Prescription
"We combined tai-chi, cognitive therapies and support groups to measure effects on early-stage dementia. We chose tai-chi because it requires a memory for motor movement. We found stabilization of mental functioning or memory, and improvement in physical and behavioural outcome. Most interventions, including medications, are designed to help slow down the disease process. There is evidence that exercise, using your brain in stimulating ways, diet and a healthy lifestyle may slow symptoms."
SANDY BURGENER, professor, department of biobehavioral health science, University of Illinois College of Nursing, Chicago