There's growing evidence that small changes in the way you walk, chew, sleep, and feel may be subtle early indicators of dementia. Dementia is characterized by the progressive loss of cognitive functioning as brain cells are destroyed. Major symptoms of dementia include personality changes, memory loss, neglecting to maintain personal hygiene, and trouble with speaking and socializing.
While Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause, dementia can also be triggered by a stroke, long-term substance abuse, Parkinson’s disease, severe head injuries, and other health conditions. But long before you show obvious signs of dementia, certain changes in your behavior could signal that you may have the condition.
Trouble chewing hard foods: The act of biting an into apple may predict your odds of developing dementia, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (JAGS). Researchers at Karolinska Institutet and Karlstad University in Sweden studied a sample of 577 people aged 77 or older and found that those who had trouble chewing hard food such as apples had a much higher risk of mental decline. The Swedish researchers offered one possible explanation: Since chewing is difficult when you have few or no teeth — which may be the case for some older people — they chew less, which reduces blood flow to the brain and therefore may put you at higher risk for dementia.
Slow Walking: Your walking style could predict your dementia risk, according to a report presented at the 2012 Alzheimer's Association International Conference. Several studies presented there found a correlation between walking abnormalities and signs of cognitive decline on neuropsychological tests. Another study presented at the conference analyzed the at-home walking behaviors of 19 older subjects using motion-sensor technology. They found those with a slow pace had smaller brain volumes, which is often true of people with dementia.
Trouble Sleeping: More bad news for night owls: Your sleep cycle now may lead to dementia later. In a December 2011 study published in Annals of Neurology, 1,300 healthy women over the age of 75 were followed over the course of five years. By the end of that time, 39 percent had developed some form of mild cognitive impairment or dementia. Researchers found that women with weaker circadian rhythms (those who performed less physical activity early in the day) were 80 percent more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment or dementia than women who were active early in the day.
Carrying Extra Pounds: Being overweight is linked to many health dangers — including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis. But one study, published in May 2011 in Neurology, linked a high BMI to a higher dementia risk. In an analysis of 8,534 twins aged 65 and older, it was noted that 350 were officially diagnosed with dementia and 114 with possible dementia. When researchers tracked their BMIs from 30 years earlier, they found that those with dementia or possible dementia now were 70 percent more likely to have been overweight or obese back then.
Worried that your extra weight could lead to cognitive decline later on? The answer may be to start a workout program. A July study presented in the Alzheimer's Association International Conference concluded that exercise may protect the aging brain.