As our lifespan increases, Americans are facing an epidemic. It’s a disease that first steals a person’s memory, then continues to diminish his or her life until death. This degenerative brain disease is Alzheimer’s. In the U.S., it claims a person’s brain every 70 seconds. So is there any way to protect ourselves? Medical experts can’t answer that question with a resounding “Yes”; however, they agree that lifestyle modifications may help ward off some of the risk factors of AD.
Basic statistics about Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in the United States read something like this:
- AD is the most common type of dementia, and there is no cure for it.
- AD is the sixth-leading cause of death in our country (AD Facts & Figures, 7).
- AD has been called the ‘Baby Boomers’ disease because it will continue to escalate as boomers age. As many as 10 million boomers will become afflicted with it. (Generation Alzheimer’s, 1).
- 1 in every 8 baby boomers will get AD after the age of 65. 1 in every 2 baby boomers who reach the age of 85 will develop this disease (Generation Alzheimer’s, 2).
- Over five million Americans are currently suffering from AD. By the year 2050, that number could reach over 13 million (Generation Alzheimer’s, 3).
- AD is more prevalent in women than men. Over half of the five million people who have this disease are women (AD Facts and figures, 17).
However, statistics alone don’t provide the human picture of Alzheimer’s disease. First, there’s the toll it takes on the afflicted person and their family. The person suffering from Alzheimer’s faces a degenerative disease that ends ultimately in death. The family watches as their loved one loses their physical and mental abilities, eventually becoming totally dependent on others. There is also the emotional and other burdens that caregivers face. Finally, there’s the financial cost to the American health system as the number of individuals with Alzheimer’s increases every year.
It’s not known just what causes AD or how it can be prevented. Fortunately, medical research has uncovered some of the risk factors of this disease. Today’s research leads experts to believe that several factors may contribute to the onset of Alzheimer’s. Some of these risk factors are not controllable. They include advanced age, family history, female gender, and certain genetic factors (AD Facts & Figures, 9).
Other risk factors for AD and other dementias include smoking, cardiovascular disease, high levels of LDL cholesterol, low levels of HDL cholesterol and mid-life obesity. Chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation and diabetes also leave people vulnerable to Alzheimer’s (Nordqvist). These factors, related to overall health, can be at least partially controlled by taking charge of our cardiovascular and brain health with relatively simple steps.
Medical experts have long maintained that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain. In fact, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, many experts believe that one of the best ways to enhance our brain health is by protecting our cardiovascular system. One way to do this is by eating a healthy diet: avoiding excess sugar, salt, unhealthy fats and highly processed foods. Researchers from Spain assert that the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes good fats, fish, whole grains, fruits and vegetables improves both our heart and brain health (Nordqvist). Eating these types of foods also provides us with omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins we need for good brain function. These vitamins include C, D, and E, as well as all of the B vitamins (Paddock). This type of diet may also protect people from diabetes, another risk factor for Alzheimer’s.
Along with a healthy diet, regular exercise is a great way to boost heart health. Exercise also helps prevent or control conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and bad cholesterol levels. Exercise encourages the cardiovascular system to work more efficiently, which enhances our brain’s cognitive functions. Additionally, experts point out that exercising supplies the brain with blood and oxygen, its food supply (Nordqvist).
A recent study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine indicates that middle-aged individuals who are physically fit are less likely to develop dementia as they age (Rabin, 15). Other recent research, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, shows that long-term exercise can slow the progression of AD (Rabin, 49).
Keeping the brain mentally fit is just as important as physical exercise. Research shows that people who work longer are less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease (Nordqvist). Working keeps our minds going and also helps us maintain the social connections we need to nurture the brain. Other research indicates that it’s important to stimulate the brain by doing thought-provoking mental exercises, learning challenging new skills, playing strategic games, and so on.
Smoking cigarettes is another factor that is bad for our cardiovascular health and raises the risk for AD as well. According to a long-term study conducted in Finland, heavy smokers (over 2 packs a day) have a much higher risk of getting AD than non-smokers, particularly those who smoked between the ages of 50 and 60 (Hendrick). This is another good reason to quit smoking, since those who quit smoking or smoked 10 or less cigarettes a day don’t have the risk faced by heavy smokers (Hendrick).
Peter Rabins, M.D., M.P.H., author of the Johns Hopkins White Paper report on Memory, states that while much of the findings about dementia and AD prevention stem from observational studies rather than clinical trials, the results are promising. Additionally, the Alzheimer’s Association acknowledges that only clinical trials would be able to prove the cause and effect between exercise and the delay or prevention of AD. The Alzheimer’s Association would agree, however, that modifying lifestyle risk factors for AD is worthwhile and beneficial for overall physical and brain health.
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Sources Cited List:
“Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures. Alzheimer’s Association. 2014. PDF. 16 June 2014.
“Generation Alzheimer’s: The Defining Disease of the Baby Boomers. Alzheimer’s Association. 2011. PDF.
Hendrick, Bill. “Smoking Linked to Alzheimer’s and Dementia. WebMD. October 2010. n. page. Web. 22 June 2014.
Nordqvist, Christian. “How to Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia. Medical News Today. 23 July 2013. n. page. Web. 18 June 2014.
Paddock, Catharine, PhD. “Nutrients May Stop Brain Shrinkage Linked to Alzheimer’s.” Medical News Today. 29 December 2011. n. page. Web. 16 June 2014.
“Prevention and Risk of Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Alzheimer’s Association. 2014. Web. 21 June 2014.
Rabins, Peter, MD, MPH. Memory. Your Annual Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia. Johns Hopkins White Papers. 2014. PDF. 18 June 2014.