In this youth-obsessed society, many of us are sensitive to the physical signs of ageing. We lament each new grey hair or wrinkle and spend time and money on controlling these ‘symptoms’ of ageing. Yet, we often don’t pay as much attention to how ageing affects our internal mechanisms.
Like our hair, waistline and skin, our body’s key organ, the brain, also changes with age. It gets smaller and lighter with reduced blood flow and changes in structure. These changes can cause mental and physical effects that reduce our quality of life. Hence, it’s good to be aware of common age-related neurological issues. This can help us to reduce our risks, or at least to spot the signs early and seek medical advice.
Dementia & Alzheimer’s Disease
‘Dementia’ refers to a general loss of cognitive abilities that affects a person’s daily life. Common symptoms are memory loss, reasoning problems and personality change. In older people, more than 60% of dementia cases are attributed to Alzheimer’s disease.
The exact cause of Alzheimer’s is still unknown, but research suggests that a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors causes changes in the brain. There is an increase in plaque, or protein clumps, which damages brain cells. Tangles also develop in the strands inside brain cells, affecting the flow of nutrients to the cells. This progressive brain cell failure diminishes a person’s mental and physical capacity.
Alzheimer’s is mostly reported among those over 65. However, early-onset Alzheimer’s has been found in people in their 50s and, in rare cases, as early as the mid-30s. The signs to watch out for include memory loss, trouble learning new information, disorientation with time and place, difficulty performing regular tasks and language issues.
A cure for Alzheimer’s hasn’t been found, but early diagnosis does minimise the burden on patients and their families. Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s involves reviewing patients’ medical history, and assessing memory, various cognitive skills and other functions. Medications can slow the disease’s progression and minimise symptoms, so early treatment is crucial. Experienced professionals can also advise patients on adapting to the disease and suggest resources and services to help them cope.
A Cerebrovascular Accident (CVA), or a stroke, is another common age-related neurological disorder. Stroke occurs when brain cells die as a result of poor blood flow, due to lack of blood (ischaemic stroke) or bleeding (haemorrhagic stroke). The faster a stroke patient gets medical assistance, the better their chances for survival and recovery. After 55, the risk of stroke doubles every decade. However, people can have a stroke at any age so it’s important to know the signs of stroke.
The acronym ‘F.A.S.T’ can help you spot and respond to stroke.
Face – Check if the face droops to one side when trying to smile
Arms – Ask the person to raise both arms; is one arm lower than the other?
Speech – Ask them to repeat a simple sentence
Time – Call for emergency services immediately as every second counts!
Stroke treatment depends on the type of stroke. For ischaemic stroke, tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) may be given intravenously to dissolve the clot. Mechanical thrombectomy may also be recommended for both types of strokes, where a device is inserted through an artery to remove a clot. For haemorrhagic stroke, surgery may be performed to stop the bleeding.
The effects of a stroke depend largely on which brain cells are damaged, and can include death, as well as permanent or temporary cognitive and physical impairment. Left-brain strokes can cause paralysis on the right side of the body, vision impairment and memory loss, while right-brain strokes are linked to left-side paralysis and speech problems. Personality changes are also common. Stroke patients often face a long rehabilitation process, but many regain at least some of their former abilities.
According to the U.S. National Stroke Association, 80% of strokes are preventable. While age and genetics are the main risk factors for both stroke and Alzheimer’s, many other factors, including smoking, obesity, hypertension, diabetes and heart disease, can be minimised with healthier lifestyles. Medications can also help, by keeping blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugar levels at optimum levels, and mental and physical exercise will help keep our minds and bodies active as we age.
You’ve heard it so often: “40 is the new 20.” In other words, life can be exciting and enjoyable as we age. So, as we focus on maintaining a youthful appearance, with moisturising creams, hair dye and countless other products, we shouldn’t forget our internal systems. Making healthier choices and being sensitive to signs of potential neurological issues will help us stay mentally and physically fit as we get older.