One of the most troubling medical conditions is also one of the least understood.
While more than five million Americans live with Alzheimer's disease or related memory conditions, there is still little hope for a "cure" or even treatment for the disease.
At least 15 million more people are left caring for their sick relatives, left to slowly watch their memories fade away.
But helpful new research is being done every day to understand these conditions, and they sometimes reveal surprising things.
1. Friendship Keeps Memories Alive
One of the most effective preventative treatments for dementia and Alzheimer’s discovered so far is regular social interaction.
A 2016 study in JAMA Psychiatry revealed older adults who describe themselves as "socially isolated" have a higher risk for Alzheimer’s.
A person found to have early symptoms of Alzheimer’s was 7.5 times more likely to be lonely than someone without those symptoms.
The link between the disease and loneliness is still being researched, and it’s not clear which comes first.
But there's no denying that making new friends helps keep memories alive.
2. The Herpes Connection
A surprising discovery found that high levels of the herpes simplex virus may put patients at risk of developing Alzheimer's.
The study, published in Neuron, singled out virus 6 and 7 of the disease, which cause the childhood rash roseola.
Something about the virus seems to interact with genes that are connected to Alzheimer’s.
What does this mean to the average person? Not much, for now.
But drugs that treat herpes may one day lead to protections against dementia and Alzheimer’s.
3. Sweet Dreams and Happy Memories
Sleep comes highly recommended by doctors, health gurus, and that one annoying healthy friend for just about everything.
But if you’re not convinced by the fact that sleep improves your mood and helps to shed excess weight, its dementia-fighting powers may win you over.
As we all know, losing sleep can leave you feeling groggy the next day.
Experts now worry that “brain fog” can build up over time, because sleep is necessary to remove proteins that cause brain-damaging inflammation.
Luckily, the prescription is simple: get more beauty sleep now to protect your brain later.
4. Brain Damage Adds Up
The link between repeatedly suffering concussions and developing brain disorders is still being studied, but we’ve all read highly publicized studies of football players who suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
But you don’t need to be a pro athlete to experience memory loss linked to concussions.
A study of middle-aged adults published in Brain found patients with even just one concussion and a genetic risk for Alzheimer’s had less grey matter in crucial parts of their brain than other patients in the study.
A memory test also revealed these sometimes minor injuries have a serious effect on brain function.
Avoiding these injuries isn't always possible, but knowing the risk they pose can help you make smarter health decisions.
5. The Surprising Upside of High Blood Pressure
As doctors piece together the causes and effects of Alzheimer’s disease and other memory conditions, we learn more about the risk caused by inflammation of the brain.
But some discoveries manage to surprise us, like the fact that high blood pressure actually reduces your Alzheimer’s risk.
Increased blood flow may keep your brain healthy in old age.
But that doesn’t mean high blood pressure is a good thing in middle age, when hypertension can put you at risk of a heart attack or stroke.
In fact, regulating blood pressure using certain medications has also shown potential as a preventative treatment for dementia and other memory conditions.
6. The Link To Pollution
Another study recorded that living in areas with high levels of air pollution made older women 92%more likely to develop dementia, compared with women breathing in cleaner air.
The connection proved especially strong when women already had genes linked to Alzheimer’s.
It seems that breathing small particles of polluted air into the lungs can exacerbate inflammation, which damages the brain over time.
The study’s authors even claimed that up to 21% of all dementia cases could be linked to air pollution, which is tricky because it's so hard to avoid.
7. Strange Symptoms
Most patients diagnosed with dementia or related memory conditions are left in the dark, until they start exhibiting memory loss, mood swings, and loss of judgement.
There are few “early warning signs” of dementia and Alzheimer’s, but one unusual symptom can be very telling.
A 2016 study in Annals of Neurology revealed trouble identifying smells is a red flag for Alzheimer’s disease.
Smells like menthol, lemon, clove, and strawberry were used to test patients who were at risk for the disease. So the nose knows, and if your sniffer is struggling, it could be a warning sign.