We go to the doctor for annual exams and to the dentist for cleanings, but have you ever thought about having a checkup done on your brain?

Alzheimer's Resource of Alaska recommends you have a memory screening annually. The free, five-minute assessment can help create a baseline by which you can track your memory. If there are significant changes, they'll be easier to spot. 

"From these assessments, researchers have been able to determine, based on how people respond, that they might be at a higher risk of some sort of dementia or Alzheimer's," said Debbie Chulick, an ARA education specialist.

When to start screening 

According to the Alzheimer's Association, one out of every three seniors dies with Alzheimer's or another related dementia. While a diagnosis under the age of 65 is rare, early-onset Alzheimer's can affect people in their 40s and 50s.

Chulick says it's never too early to start building a memory screening history. The assessment has two parts.

The first is a written component. You'll answer a self evaluation, which includes questions about any changes you may have noticed in the last several months or years, such as whether you've noticed:

•     Problems making decisions

•     Loss of interest in hobbies or activities

•     Repeated statements

•     Trouble remembering dates or appointments

The second piece is auditory. Your instructor will give you three words to repeat, then ask you to draw something, before recalling the words. 

What to do if you show signs 

Depending on your score, your instructor may recommend you see your doctor, especially because there are other medical conditions that can cause symptoms similar to dementia.

These can include:

•     Side effects of certain medications

•     Nutritional deficiencies

•     Excess use of alcohol

•     Thyroid Problems

If you are diagnosed with dementia, Chulick says it's important to remember life isn't over. 

"Life may be changing, life may be different, but life is not over" she said. "There's things they can do — start talking to family and friends about what their wishes are. They can start making sure that they're enjoying life, doing, living life while they have it. Going out and taking that trip."

A 'random' disease

While there are healthy habits beneficial for both the body and brain, scientists have yet to figure out how to prevent or cure Alzheimer's and related forms of dementia. There is also no way to know who will develop the disease. Chulick calls it a random process. 

"There can be identical twins, that grow up in the exact same environment, drink the same water, eat the same food, breathe the same air and for some reason one of the twins will develop Alzheimer's or a related dementia, while the other twin has no dementia whatsoever," she said. 

However, traumatic brain injuries can increase the chances of developing dementia. For that reason, the Alzheimer's Association stresses the importance of wearing a helmet while biking or playing contact sports and wearing a seat belt while riding in motor vehicles. 

10 ways to care for your brain

According to the Alzheimer's Association, there are a few simple things you can do to prevent brain injuries and promote brain health. 

Exercise regularly

Regular cardiovascular exercise elevates your heart rate and increases blood flow to the brain and body. The Alzheimer's Association reports that several studies have found that physical activity can reduce the risk of cognitive decline.

Engage in education activities

Formal education of any kind can help ward off cognitive decline. The Alzheimer's Association recommends taking an online class or looking into courses at your local community center.

Avoid smoking 

The Alzheimer's Association notes that smoking increases the risk for cognitive decline, but quitting can reduce risk levels to that of those who do not smoke. 

Focus on heart health

Research suggests your mind follows your body in this regard. By focusing on reducing your risk for cardiovascular disease, you may be increasing your cognitive health. 

Wear a helmet

Traumatic brain injuries can increase your risk for dementia. Wear a helmet while biking or during contact sports and take steps to prevent a fall. 

Eat a healthy and balanced diet

Diets that are low in fats and higher in fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk for cognitive decline. Some research has suggested the Mediterranean diet may be beneficial. 

Make time for sleep

At least one study suggests that sleep deprivation can increase a protein in the brain associated with impaired function and Alzheimer's disease. 

Take care of your mental health

Studies have linked depression to an increased risk for Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia. Anchorage Community Mental Health Resources is one of the largest providers in the state. 

Be social

Staying socially engaged may support brain health. The Alzheimer's Association recommends pursuing social activities that are meaningful to you, whether that's volunteering or joining a hobby-driven group. The organization even offers a choir program for people with dementia and their care givers. 

Challenge yourself

Brain games, puzzles and construction projects can all help activate your mind. They may have both short- and long-term benefits for your brain.

Scientists close in on blood test

Scientists are closing in on a blood test that may aid in screening for Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

According to CBS News, half a dozen research groups at an international conference on Alzheimer's last month gave new results on various experimental tests, including one that seems 88% accurate at indicating Alzheimer's risk.

Doctors are seeking a tool that can be used during routine exams where dementia symptoms are evaluated, rather than relying on subjective estimates of cognitive skills.

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