Some older adults suffer from biologically based cognitive impairments in which the brain is so adversely affected by aging that it becomes very difficult for the person to continue to function effectively. Dementia is defined as a progressive neurological diseasethat includes loss of cognitiveabilities significant enough to interfere with everydaybehaviors, and Alzheimer’s disease is aform of dementia that, over a period of years, leads to a loss of emotions, cognitions, and physical functioning, and which is ultimatelyfatal. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are most likely to be observed in individuals who are 65 and older, and the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s doubles about every 5 years after age 65. After age 85, the risk reaches nearly 8% per year (Hebert et al., 1995). 1 Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease both produce a gradual decline in functioning of the brain cells that produce the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Without this neurotransmitter, the neurons are unable to communicate, leaving the brain less and less functional.
Dementia and Alzheimer’s are in part heritable, but there is increasing evidence that the environment also plays a role. And current research is helping us understand the things that older adults can do to help them slow down or prevent the negative cognitive outcomes of aging, including dementia and Alzheimer’s (Pushkar, Bukowski, Schwartzman, Stack, & White, 2007). 2 Older a dults who continue to keep their minds active by engaging in cognitive activities, such as reading, playing musical instruments, attending lectures, or doing crossword puzzles, who maintain social interactions with others, and who keep themselves physically fit have a greater chance of maintaining their mental acuity than those who do not (Cherkas et al., 2008; Verghese et al., 2003). 3 In short, although physical illnesses may occur to anyone, the more people keep their brains active and the more they maintain a healthy and active lifestyle, the more healthy their brains will remain (Ertel, Glymour, & Berkman, 2008). 4