No one lives forever, so as we get older, we inevitably think about our own mortality. Especially when we lose a family member or a close friend. I had imagined the leading cause of death for Australians to be either heart disease, vascular issues or cancer and I was wrong. It was a reality check which was both reassuring and scary.
The leading cause of death for women in Australia is in fact, Dementia!
As the following image indicates:
..for people aged 85 and over, it was dementia including Alzheimer disease, followed by coronary heart disease.
Given this information, I feel it’s important to prevent, or at least delay, the onset of dementia if I can.
The Role of Mental Health in Preventing Dementia
Until the final years of my Grandmother’s life, she travelled widely and drove a car. Having outlived every one of her friends, she relied on family for social contact. The end of her driving days triggered further social isolation and she developed dementia until she could no longer live alone and moved to a nursing facility, where she died.
I have no desire to live until I am 106 years old or even 96. For one thing, I do not want to be a burden on my kids or on society. Nor do I want to spend years in a nursing facility, slumped in a wheelchair, semi-comatose, attending indoor bowls sessions or listening, if I can still hear, to sing-alongs from amateur vaudeville acts with performers that average 85 years or more. For many of us, that might be the reality of our declining years. I have seen it and it isn’t a great quality of life – merely existing rather than living.
An accomplished cardiologist stated that although heart disease may be the leading cause of death for men, it is vital that women care not just for their hearts, but also their mental well-being in their later years.
However, she claims women have one big thing in their favour.
Friends are vital to good mental health and may lower our stress and therefore, our subsequent risk for dementia. I know I can turn to my female friends for advice, reassurance and help. I plan to stave off the mental decline, as best I can, by being physically and mentally active, eating and sleeping sensibly.
Whilst men might need management of physical health to avoid strokes and heart attacks, women need their girlfriends!
As the risk factors for dementia and heart disease include mental stress and social isolation, how can I achieve this and avoid outliving my much-loved friends, as my Grandmother did?
Should I focus on building friendships with younger folk?
I discussed this with a younger friend, who happened to work in the medical field, and she told me:
“Sorry, Amanda, but I won’t be looking after you when you are old.”
My first reaction was that I was chuffed she didn‘t consider me old, already. Then I clarified:
“No, No. I don’t want you to look after me, I just want you to chat with me, or perhaps visit occasionally, if you can?”
Her broad smile accompanied a verbal agreement to do exactly that! Perfect!
Healthy Body, Healthy Mind
Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, stimulates the growth of brain cells and the connections between them. Mental exercise helps to build new brain cells and strengthen connections between them. This helps to give the brain more ‘reserve’ or ‘back up’ so that it can cope better and keep working properly if any brain cells are damaged or die.
Depression is often associated with an increased risk of dementia. Scientific research suggests that changing certain health and lifestyle habits may make a big difference to reducing or delaying your risk.
There are many ways to look after your mind and it’s never too early or too late to start.
- Connect with friends and stay social
- Play games like puzzles, crosswords and cards
- Learn a new language
- Take up a new sport
- Learn a new hobby like painting, sewing, woodwork and cooking
- Vary your daily activities
Being brain healthy is important at any age but is crucial once you reach middle age, for this is when degenerative changes might begin to manifest.
Risk Factors for Dementia
The risk factors for dementia are different for each person and may include:
- Age, genetics and family history
- High blood pressure & High cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes
- Physical Inactivity
- Depression, anxiety
- Social Isolation
Many risk factors are modifiable and the risk of dementia can be reduced by:
- Regular GP check-ups for blood pressure, blood glucose levels and cholesterol
- Eating a healthy diet
- Not smoking
- Exercising or physical activity
- Getting enough sleep
- Looking after your hearing
- Caring for your mental health
When Might I Expect to Die?
Australia enjoys one of the highest life expectancies in the world, at 82.8 years in 2018 for males and females at birth combined—ranked seventh among 37 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. The country with the highest life expectancy at birth for males was Switzerland (81.9 years), and for females was Japan (87.3 years).
If I am average, I hope to be fortunate enough to see another two decades or so, in a reasonable condition. That means many more coffee mornings with girlfriends, to enjoy.