If dementia were a country, it would be the world’s 21st-largest economy, ranking between Poland and Saudi Arabia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The global annual cost of care for 2010 was estimated to be $604 billion. About one-third of those dollars, $203 billion, was spent in the U.S., and that number is expected to increase quickly. Current projections place the tab at $1.2 trillion by 2050 for the United States alone.
This week the Group of Eight (G-8) agreed to elevate its commitment to fight Alzheimer’s disease, a principal cause of dementia, by finding a cure. The call to action was reminiscent of when the G-8 determined it would address the AIDS epidemic years ago. The problem is that, like AIDS, there is no established cure. Pharmaceuticals work for only a portion of patients and only for a limited period of time. Britain led the way in promising to double its expenditure on research, spurring other G-8 ministers to follow.
The population of people with dementia is rapidly expanding. Currently, 5.2 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, making it the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. As death from other major diseases slowly decreases, for dementia the numbers are up, with a 68 percent increase in the past decade. By 2050, 13.8 million Americans are expected to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.
Arguably even more important than the financial burden is dementia’s mental and emotional burden. Many patients suffering from dementia experience depression and anxiety. The same can be said for their daily caregivers. A recent report of the Alzheimer’s Association showed that family and friends invested more than 17.5 billion hours of unpaid care in 2012. Sixty percent of them rated the emotional stress of caregiving as “very high,” and one-third reported symptoms of depression.
At the same time, we live in a society where we believe that “who we are” is limited to “what we think.” Popular literature reflects this opinion with best-sellers like “We Are Our Brains.” As a consequence, losing cognitive function and memory becomes synonymous with losing oneself. People around those with dementia will express that the old him or her no longer exists. As a result “Alzheimer’s” becomes one’s new identity. That comes with a profound sense of loss. One patient described it as a funeral spread out over several years.
In Western society the brain seems to be valued most among the body organs, but this view is not shared everywhere. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), for example, the kidneys are considered the “root of life.” They are believed to hold the genetic blueprint of who we are. A good functioning kidney, according to TCM, will cause a person to thrive by stimulating growth and development, fertility and gentle aging. In Tibetan medicine the stomach is considered the prime organ, as it purifies all nutrients and energy flows before entering the body. A strong stomach is associated with a long and healthy life, whereas a weak stomach predisposes a person to many ailments. In both traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine, the brain is more incidental.
What can we do to protect our brains from this malady? Research has shown that an active brain is less likely to develop dementia. Many doctors encourage their elderly patients to read, play crossword puzzles and sudoku. Certain types of meditation and yoga may be even more powerful. Harvard researchers have shown that mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy consisting of a combination of meditation and yoga is able to slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in patients with mild cognitive impairments. Although the findings are preliminary, the possibilities are exciting. Not only does it give patients in early stages of the disease a sense of control, meditation and yoga can also help reduce the mental burden of the disease.
The benefits of meditation and yoga apply not only to those who suffer from dementia. Too often we spend our days running around without taking the time to rejuvenate and reflect, making peace of mind appear elusive. As it turns out, being totally present in the moment may be the best investment to prevent dementia later in life.