People who care for loved ones with dementia, especially when those loved ones are relatives, are often concerned about whether they will develop dementia themselves.
While research continues to study the disease, especially Alzheimer’s disease, most researchers believe the disease develops from multiple factors including genetics, lifestyle and environment. Simply put, just because your loved one has the disease does not necessarily mean you will also develop symptoms.
Even if you have a family history of dementia, a healthy lifestyle and environment might help you avoid symptoms later in life. Common factors identified in lifestyle include diet and exercise, along with drinking less alcohol and not smoking. To achieve this, however, is challenging for some and quite natural for others.
The difference, in my years of practice, is often rooted in one elusive emotion: happiness.
Happiness empowers people to take better care of themselves. They are better able to eat well, to exercise and break bad habits around smoking and alcohol consumption, not to mention they live with less stress, anxiety and depression than those who choose to not be happy.
You see, happiness is not something we are born into, and it certainly isn’t earned by success. Many successful or wealthy people are also unhappy and depressed. We see it among famous people, but it happens just as often to those out of the limelight. Then you run into someone with almost nothing who seems downright happy.
How can this be?
Ultimately, happiness is a choice we each must make for ourselves. We have to choose to be happy, with what we have or what we have earned, and do what we enjoy. Happiness can be learned, but it takes some discipline. Many of us have to work at happiness.
Fortunately, there are things we can all do to wire our brains for happiness. Practice gratitude. Perhaps the linchpin to happiness is practicing gratitude: Be grateful for what you have and don't obsess over what you don’t have. Studies have shown that, on average, those who routinely practice gratitude have stronger immune systems, decreased amounts of chronic pain, lower blood pressure and are generally happier than those who do not.
How we practice gratitude is largely a matter of personal choice, but one way to get started is to start a gratitude journal. Grab any notebook or blank journal and develop the habit of writing down what you are grateful for. Making a point of writing at least one thing a day is a great place to start. The simple act of writing down your experiences or emotions can enrich them and help your brain absorb it. Focus on the present. Don’t stress over what you haven’t accomplished. Accept yourself for what you have experienced, good and bad. If you have negative emotions around part of your past, realize those experiences made you the person you are today, so find ways to accept who you are in the here and now.
Commit to meaningful goals. Everyone responds to goals if they are meaningful and achievable. This is true in workplaces, but they also are meaningful in our personal lives. Setting even small goals that are achievable within our means, then working to achieve them is one way to move the needle toward happiness.
Develop meaningful social connections. This is perhaps the easiest to achieve in the near term, because of the prevalence of social media to maintain relationships, and yet those same media make it hard to keep relationships meaningful. Take time to weed your social garden. Yes, you want diversity in your social streams to avoid living in an echo chamber, but avoiding those who are incessantly negative can also help maintain a positive trend toward happiness.
Finally, take care of your mind, body and spirit. Focus on and maintain what you have, not worrying about what you don’t have. These are key lessons from those happy people around us. Let’s not lose sight of them by focusing on what’s not there.
Lauren Mahakian is a certified dementia practitioner for patients and families living with dementia and cognitive disorders. Visit FamilyConnectCare.com to access free support groups on Zoom, her podcast "Unlocking the Doors of Dementia with Lauren," care management services, and to tour her family-style Memory Care Homes in Torrance and Solvang.
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