LEWISTON – A decade before the first appearance of dementia symptoms – forgetfulness, disorientation and eroded judgment – the brain may already be changing.

So begin fighting it right away, therapist and researcher Nancy Richeson said.

Such preventative care as eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly may delay the onset of dementia years from now, Richeson said Thursday at the Great Falls Forum lecture series.

“We need to get serious about our health,” she said. “Prevention really is the key.”

The talk was directed at the graying baby boomer generation. Typically defined as born between 1946 and 1964, the oldest boomers are 63 years old and have begun to retire.

“Move your body,” said Richeson, an associate professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions at the University of Southern Maine.

Eat dark green veggies, berries and fish. Avoid fatty or high cholesterol foods. Exercise for 30 minutes a day, at least five times a week.

“This is not a focus on your weight,” Richeson said. “It is a focus on leading a healthy lifestyle.”

The alternative can be catastrophic.

Currently, 5.5 million Americans suffer from dementia, she said. They account for one in eight people over age 65 and more than half of people 85 or older.

The cost of dealing with dementia is about $100 billion per year, much of it spent on nursing home care, she said.

The term “dementia” includes more than 70 different disorders including its most common form, Alzheimer’s disease.

Richeson’s own research includes programs such as pedometer-based walking programs, animal-assisted therapy, and adult education programs for people with early-stage dementia.

She has also consulted for a congressional task force on dementia.

Richeson warned people that the best prevention will include more than physical health. It should also include the pursuit of new skills and social time.

Go to a lecture, learn an instrument or take a Tai Chi class, she said. Take time to feed the whole person.

“We do live in this culture of fast food and fast lifestyle,” she said.

It’s healthier to slow down, she said.

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