When we get older, we are at higher risk of developing memory loss conditions called dementia. Navigating both the mental and physical challenges dementia presents can be an immense task. Knowing how to overcome those challenges can better equip caregivers to help their loved ones.
While dementia primarily affects brain function, it’s essential to understand it holistically. Understanding holistically means asking questions like whether dementia affects other parts of the body, like the immune system.
Dementia is a set of conditions affecting the brain’s ability to think, reason, and access memory functions. Dementia itself isn’t a disease but rather a term to describe a group of symptoms. There are many different types of dementia categorized by their cause, including:
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, with over 6 million Americans currently living with the condition.
Dementia can cause severe cognitive and behavioral changes, including:
- Impaired memory function
- Diminished with spatial awareness
- Vivid visual hallucinations
- Paranoia & agitated behavior
- Depression & anxiety
- Trouble recognizing familiar faces
Over 55 million people worldwide experience dementia, with 10 million new cases added each year. Everybody can develop dementia as they age; however, women, racial minorities, people with diabetes, and those with poor health are at a higher risk.
Immune System Changes with Age
As we age, our immune system naturally becomes weaker. Older people are less able to fight off infections like influenza, and their bones don’t heal as quickly as younger people making it more difficult to recover from injuries.
The immune system becomes less able to tell a foreign antigen apart from the rest of the body, making the body more susceptible to infections. The body also contains cells called macrophages. Macrophages help protect the immune system from bacteria, cancerous cells, and antigens. As we age, macrophage function slows down.
As immune function slows down in older adults or those with poor health, the body responds to infections and viruses later in a process called systemic inflammation. This inflammation can affect brain function, making it more difficult for brain cells to communicate.
Your brain cells being unable to communicate can lead to the development of memory loss conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
Dementia and the Immune System
Diminished immune system function is understood to contribute to developing memory loss conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. When a person has poor immune health, they risk responding poorly to infection and triggering systemic inflammation. Research shows brain inflammation is a critical factor in developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Another factor linking immune health with memory loss diseases is research demonstrating a link between microglia and Alzheimer’s. Microglia is a type of immune cell that clears toxic materials and waste from the brain, similar to macrophages. These vital immune cells don’t function correctly in Alzheimer’s patients, leading to damaged brain cells.
Boosting Immune Health
Dementia does not necessarily affect the immune system. However, the immune system is understood to directly affect a person’s likelihood of developing memory loss conditions. Lifestyle changes and an improved diet can positively impact this likelihood.
A diet consisting of more nutritious foods can slow cognitive decline. Your brain is made up of 60% fat, most of which is omega-3s. Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel are full of omega-3 fatty acids. You can even supplement your omega-3 intake with fish oil.
Blueberries are also an excellent addition to your diet. Blueberries are antioxidants and anti-inflammatory. They help reduce the inflammation associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease, which can later develop into dementia.
Even if a person already has Alzheimer’s disease, eating meals full of foods that are good for brain health is vital to maintaining the cognitive function they already have.
Taking Care of You
Taking care of you or your loved ones’ immune health starts at home with making healthy choices. Caring for immune health early reduces a person’s risk of developing memory loss conditions; however, it doesn’t completely diminish the risk.
When your loved one requires more support, memory care communities are available to give it. With specialized menus to support brain health and highly personalized care, your loved one can get the help they need.