There’s a good chance that either you or someone you know is directly touched by Alzheimer’s. After all, the disease is nearly rampant among the older population, affecting nearly 5.1 million Americans every year. Some estimates suggest that individuals have a 45 percent chance of winding up with Alzheimer’s by the time they reach 85, underscoring the sheer prevalence of this degenerative disease.
With National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month in November, it is crucial to understand exactly what Alzheimer’s is and what it means. The Alzheimer’s Association defines Alzheimer’s as “a type of dementia that causes problems with thinking, memory, and behavior.”
Keith Fargo, Ph.D., director of scientific programs and outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association, says it is especially important to note that, “…Alzheimer’s disease is not just dementia. Alzheimer’s Disease is a continuum of brain changes that occur- many times up to decades- before a person becomes demented from Alzheimer’s Disease.”
Just as cholesterol often builds in the arteries long before an actual heart attack occurs, Dr. Fargo says, “something similar is thought to be going on in Alzheimer’s disease, that long before you actually develop dementia you have the build up of proteins in your brain called amyloid and tau that cause what we call tangles and plaques in the brain.”
Because it is thought that the causes of Alzheimer’s begin long before the disease fully sets in, it is important to maintain good health and take preventative measures where possible whatever your age. There is no single known cause for Alzheimer’s, though genetics increase the risk of certain individuals with a family history of dementia. Even if you have genetic factors that could contribute to Alzheimer’s, Dr. Fargo notes that “Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias are complicated conditions and so even if you do have a genetic component, it’s still a good idea to take care of your cardiovascular risk factors, maintain exercise, and stay active intellectually and socially.”
Here are some simple tips to lowering your risk of Alzheimer’s:
1. Buckle Up.
Studies link head trauma to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. Simple habits like buckling your seat belt and wearing your helmet help protect against serious brain injury.
2. Love Your Heart.
They say the head and heart are often at odds, but not when it comes to health. 20-25% of blood per heartbeat goes toward helping nourish the brain. Braincells use 20% of the food and oxygen carried in your blood, so when damage to heart or blood vessels occurs, vascular dementia is more likely to set in.
Protect your vascular health by taking measures to avoid diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
3. You Are What You Eat.
Manage your health with heart-friendly and brain-friendly diets. Adopt this as a lifestyle rather than a short-term deal. Eat balanced meals, eat in moderation, and watch your weight. It’s thought that HDL cholesterol and Vitamins E, C, and B12 could help protect braincells and promote brain health.
“Dark skinned” fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants are also recommended. Such food include: kale, spinach, brussels sprouts, alfalfa sprouts, broccoli, beets, red bell pepper, onion, corn, eggplant, prunes, raisins, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, plums, oranges, red grapes and cherries.
4. Don’t Smoke.
Smoking affects blood flow which in turn affects the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain.
5. Walk It Off.
When you get your body moving, you get your heart pumping. Take the dog for a walk, do some yoga, pick up around the house, or anything else that results in 30 minutes of daily exercise.
6. Be Happy.
Though there is no full-proof strategy to prevent Alzheimer’s the National Institute on Aging suggests watching your overall health can’t hurt and might help lower risk of dementia. This includes receiving treatment for depression. Remember, health and happiness go hand in hand.
7. Do the Math.
Keep track of your blood sugar levels, your cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight. They all contribute to your heart, brain, and general health.
8. Engage Your Brain.
Read a book, learn a new language, or play trivia games. Challenging your brain with intellectual activities helps to prevent cognitive decline. It is important to note that natural cognitive decline due to aging is not the same as having actual dementia. Still, emerging evidence suggests good brain health may lower the odds of developing dementia, so there’s no downside to keeping your mind active.
9. Make New Friends.
Helping prevent Alzheimer’s might be as simple as making new friends. Socializing engages your brain and can help fight depression, both things that lead to better overall health. So have dinner with friends, go to mixers, join clubs or hobby groups. It’s the most fun way to help maintain good health.
For those who already have Alzheimer’s:
For those who already have Alzheimer’s, it is important to look for warning signs. If caught early, treatments can help to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease.
There are over 5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s Disease, almost 2/3 of which are women, says Dr. Keith Fargo. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia and accounts for 60-80% of all dementia cases.
The good news is there are modifiable risk factors that everyone can monitor and manage.
The Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability (FINGER Study), the results of which were presented in July of this year, found that “physical activity, nutritional guidance, cognitive training, social activities and management of heart health risk factors improved cognitive performance” in older adults.
Other ways to get involved:
You can also help fight Alzheimer’s by joining The Walk to End Alzheimer’s and donating to the Alzheimer’s Association, and participating in clinical trials. Clinical trials lead to insightful studies that are helping pave the road for a cure to Alzheimer’s Disease. Such research requires both time and resources, but in the U.S. current federal funding is insufficient. Becoming an Alzheimer’s Advocate can help to change that and is one of “the most important things that people can do at the individual level,” says Dr. Fargo.