Acknowledging the Dementia Epidemic
Currently, we live in a society that constantly hears about the presence of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Between popular culture promoting films such as Still Alice and Away From Her and the increased effort to find a cure, people are finally beginning to care about these debilitating conditions.
Just this past week at a World Health Organization (WHO) conference, a global action called for increased investment (over 100 million dollars) in promising research efforts for dementia. With the aging population, the WHO Director General said:
“There is a tidal wave of dementia coming our way worldwide…we need to see greater investments in research to develop a cure, but also to improve the quality of life of people living with dementia and the support given to their caregivers.”
In many ways, the first step in curing dementia is learning how it develops and certain risk factors that contribute to a dementia diagnosis.
Recent studies point to a link between chronic lung diseases like COPD and the development of dementia.
An Introduction to COPD and Other Chronic Lung Diseases
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) is a progressive lung disease that restricts the airflow in and out of the lungs. As a result, sufferers of a chronic lung disease like COPD often experience shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing and the inability to perform simple tasks.
Oftentimes, sufferers have very low oxygen levels, which can result in brain damage due to a lack of oxygen to the brain.
Scientific Findings about Lung Function and Cognitive Decline
Researchers began studying the connection between lung function and dementia risk in the 90’s. Ever since, new studies have emerged that point a finger at an increased risk for memory loss and dementia resulting from impaired lung function and chronic lung disease.
In 2011, a fifteen-year study supported the hypothesis that reduced lung function increased the risk for dementia. The over-a-decade long study included 10,975 individuals and repeated pulmonary function tests and cognitive assessments.
In the end, it is confirmed that lung function greatly impacts cognitive ability.
One study called Cognitive-pulmonary Disease states that “patients with COPD may have cognitive impairment, either globally or in single cognitive domains, such as information processing, attention and concentration, memory…”
It is suspected that the cause is from hypoxemia, which is low blood oxygen levels, hypercapnia (an increased amount of carbon dioxide in the blood—a common side effect of smoking and COPD), or structural brain damage, such as the loss of white matter integrity, which can be induced by smoking.
As a result of new research findings, scientists are looking into the relationship between smoking and cognitive ability and the relationship between COPD and dementia.
Due to the strong correlation between all three, we wonder whether quitting smoking could not only decrease your chances of developing COPD or another chronic lung disease, but could it decrease your chances of developing dementia as well?
It is hoped that future research will determine whether maintaining optimal pulmonary health could prevent the development of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps even more intriguing is the possibility that treating your chronic lung disease could not only improve your lung function and quality of life, but it could also help maintain healthy cognition.
Improving Your Lung Function
The benefits of improving your lung function seem relatively obvious: the ability to breathe easier, the chance to get back to the life you want, an improved prognosis—the list goes on.
Now, there is the potential for improved lung function also to decrease the likelihood of developing a debilitating condition like dementia. Unfortunately, chronic lung diseases are incurable, but that does not mean they are untreatable.
Christine Kingsley, APRN is the Health and Wellness Director at the Lung Institute where she focuses on providing helpful online resources for people looking for information on various lung diseases, breathing exercises, and healthy lifestyle choices. She advocates for holistic care that involves working with your doctor to explore all options including traditional and alternative care while focusing on diet and exercise as proactive measures.