The financial implications of dementia

Alzheimer’s can have a devastating effect on family finances

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elderly_couple_322(Note to readers: If you’ve not read my Financial Independence blog before, it may seem that today’s blog is more related to health than personal finance. Bear with us, though, because today’s topic of dementia is highly correlated with longevity. The longer you live, the more you need to consider the financial implications of health issues like dementia.)

One of the themes I’ve been exploring lately has been longevity—the notion that most of us can expect to live longer than our parents and grandparents. That assumes a lot of things, such as adopting healthy lifestyles, being blessed with good genes and not engaging in harmful behaviours. And of course, as the current Ebola scare reminds us, there’s no shortage of external circumstances that can render moot the idea of extended personal longevity.

But let’s be optimistic. If financial planners reckon on a lifespan of 90 or 95 years for the average client, let’s assume we at least reach our 90s. The unfortunate aspect of this is that while our good habits and advances in medical science may stave off such unwelcome events as heart disease or cancer, it also means there is a greater chance of succumbing to dementia. As RBC Dominion Securities investment adviser Nathan Mechanic told me many years ago, Alzheimer’s can have a devastating effect on family finances.

Dementia portrayed in essays and novels

On my recent trip to Turkey, I happened to read some books that touched independently on the theme of the scourge of Alzheimer’s. One was an essay by novelist Jonathan Franzen entitled “My Father’s Brain,” contained in his collection, How to Be Alone. In it, Franzen chronicled the slow and painful loss of his father Earl to Alzheimer’s. He depicted it as a series of deaths of various capabilities: memory, mobility etc., wherein the actual physical death of the whole body was merely the final instalment of a drama that unfolded over several years.

On a similar theme is Still Alice, a novelized treatment of Alzheimer’s written by neuroscientist Lisa Genova. Written in 2007, it portrays the onset of early Alzheimer’s at age 50 of cognitive psychology professor Alice Howland. It was turned into a film of the same name in 2014. For those who enjoy medical thrillers. Genova has been described as “the Michael Crichton of brain science.”

100 tips to stave off dementia’s onset

I also read an e-book I’d recommend to anyone interested in this topic, or who may already have gone through the experience with a parent or other loved family member. It’s called 100 Simple Things you can do to Prevent Alzheimer’s and Age-Related Memory Loss, by Jean Carper. The book was published in 2010 and the author dedicated it to her mother, Natella, who made it to 95 without dementia but spent a “final year with probable vascular dementia.”

I’d guess many baby boomers will be in a similar situation by the end of their long lives: 90 or 95 years of relatively strong mental health, followed by a year or two of this type of loss of mental acuity. So what are the 100 tips we can act on to minimize our chances of being afflicted with dementia? Here are some of the main ones that left an impression on me. Number one is to “Get Smart About Alcohol.” It stands to reason that excess drinking cannot be a good thing for our brain cells, although Carper concedes the benefits of modest (a glass or two) of red wine on occasion. And rest assured, chocolate lovers, you may be able to safely indulge in similarly modest consumption of dark chocolate, but less so milk or white chocolate. And yes, it’s okay to “say yes to coffee” and we don’t need to be afraid of caffeine.

Carper also recommends drinking apple juice or “juices of all kinds,” eating berries every day, eating curry, nuts, olive oil, spinach, tea, vinegar, fish and various other good foods. She recommends the Mediterranean Diet. And yes, exercise is a fine thing even if it’s just fast-paced walking. Sleep is important and meditation is helpful. It helps to be married and have a large social circle. Avoid red meat, avoid inactivity, beware the dangers of fast foods, control bad cholesterol and avoid environmental toxins.

If you have an interesting job, don’t be too quick to retire: work is an excellent way to keep your brain active. Alternatively, web surfers will be pleased to learn “Googling” is good for the brain, as are video games. So is learning another language. Build strong muscles, take multivitamins, and take regular nature hikes. The author even suggests “considering” medical marijuana, assuming it doesn’t entail breaking the law.  But “forget about smoking” cigarettes and cut down on sugar.

Much of this is common sense and you may have heard some of these tips before. But if you can tick off more than half these items, my bet is you will have made a great start in delaying the onset of this affliction for yourself or anyone you love.

Jonathan Chevreau is editor-at-large at MoneySense. He blogs at findependenceday.com and here.

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