Don't Let Alzheimer's and Dementia Spoil Your Retirement

Last Updated Aug 24, 2010 3:58 PM EDT

Yours Truly Reducing the Risk of Alzheimer's
Dementia and Alzheimer's disease are giant monkey wrenches that can disrupt the plans you have for enjoying your retirement years, as well as drain your retirement savings. Here's a little something to get your attention: Results from an informative report prepared by the Alzheimer's Association titled 2010 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures show that:
  • An estimated 5.3 million Americans currently have Alzheimer's disease; this figure is projected to increase to 7.7 million by 2030.
  • Alzheimer's is the fifth-leading cause of death for people aged 65 and older.
  • Annual medical expenditures for Alzheimer's are now at $172 billion; the total exceeds $200 billion when you consider lost wages and lost productivity of unpaid caregivers.
  • 10.9 millions Americans are currently providing unpaid care for relatives and friends with dementia or Alzheimer's, a contribution to the nation valued by the report to be about $144 billion. And this figure doesn't include the physical and emotional strain on caregivers.
I'm haunted by the prospect of millions of boomers contracting Alzheimer's disease and dementia in our later years, swamping the health care system, straining our families, and bankrupting our retirement.

While Alzheimer's and dementia affect both sexes, they are important issues for women on both sides of the spectrum. That's because women are often caregivers for friends and family members, and are also more likely to end up contracting these diseases. The report from the Alzheimer's Association reported that 16 percent of women aged 71 and older had Alzheimer's, while only 11 percent of men had this condition. But that's because there are more women than men at advanced ages; men and women of the same age have roughly equal chances of contacting Alzheimer's or dementia.

Before we go any further, let's make an important distinction about terms. "Dementia" is defined as a dysfunctional loss or decline of memory and other cognitive functions, and it can have a number of causes. While there are various forms of dementia, "Alzheimer's disease" is the most prevalent. All types of dementia can result in needing some form of long-term care, with the potential of requiring an extensive stay in an expensive nursing home or assisted living facility.

At this time, there's no cure or effective treatment for Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, but many scientists and researchers are currently working on the problem. But while there's no cure, extensive research has shown that there are lifestyle steps you can take to significantly reduce the odds of contracting dementia. According to the above report from the Alzheimer's Association, these steps include:
  • Managing the health of your brain -- one of the body's most vascular organs -- by mitigating risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
  • Eating a low-fat diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Maintaining a robust social network and a lifetime of curiosity and intellectual stimulation.
What's great about the above lifestyle factors is that they also reduce the odds of contracting most of the expensive, debilitating chronic conditions of our later years, including heart disease and diabetes -- not just dementia.

But here's my favorite suggested lifestyle step: The New England Journal of Medicine recently published a study that concluded that older people who participate in frequent leisure activities with high cognitive activity, such as reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments, and dancing, have a much lower frequency -- up to 63 percent lower -- of contracting Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

My father had some form of dementia in his later years, so I witnessed first-hand the personal loss and the costs associated with this condition. As a result, I vowed that I'll do everything within my power to reduce the odds of this happening to me.

While there are no guarantees in life, it's a no-brainer for me to eat the right kinds and amounts of food, walk frequently, and get other forms of exercise, and dance as much as possible with my wife (see photo above)!

Warning: Dancing with your spouse has the potential for substantial side effects -- it may enhance your marital relationship!

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    View all articles by Steve Vernon on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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