Is Alzheimer's preventable? Some experts say yes. Lifestyle changes could reduce the prevalence of the disease by 25 percent, according to research presented at last year's Alzheimer's Association International Conference. And even experts who disagree note that all these behavioral changes are still smart health bets.
Get head-to-toe healthy. Diabetes, depression, and heart disease have all been linked to increased risk of Alzheimer's. The very same cholesterol plaques and inflamed blood vessels that clog your heart, for example, also clog the arteries that carry blood and oxygen to your brain. "Reduced blood supply to the brain can be a huge determinant of who gets Alzheimer's disease and when they develop symptoms," says P. Murali Doraiswamy, M.D., professor of psychiatry and geriatrics at Duke University Institute for Brain Sciences and coauthor of The Alzheimer's Action Plan (St. Martin's Griffin). Now's the time to commit to keeping your weight down, your stress in check, and your cholesterol, glucose, and blood pressure at optimal levels by engaging in regular aerobic exercise. You should also embrace a heart-healthy diet that's heavy on fresh produce (like berries, which studies have shown promote brain health), fatty fish (rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which may protect against mental disorders), and whole grains, but light on saturated fats, red meat, and highly processed foods.
Protect your crown. Alzheimer's disease is believed to be caused by plaques and tangles of protein in the brain, which essentially interrupt brain circuitry and reduce memory function. Injuries to the brain—even microtraumas that may result in only a short loss of consciousness or state of confusion—add further "dead zones" to the brain and make it that much more vulnerable. Bottom line: You, your husband, and the kids should always wear your seat belt and use a helmet whenever you skate, bike, ski, or participate in an activity where head injury is a risk. Enforce those rules with the whole family.
Step out of your comfort zone. One of the major discoveries in the field of brain science is that even as we age, we can stimulate the growth of new brain cells and bolster our brain circuitry. Those extra connections act like a "cognitive reserve" that your brain can turn to when other cells die off or become deadened by injury or Alzheimer's plaques. "To most effectively stimulate and strengthen connections in the brain, you have to engage in activities that are challenging, new, and take you off automatic pilot," says Doraiswamy. If you're a numbers person, consider doing crosswords. If you're a word person, perhaps take up bridge. You might even pick up one of the many software programs, like Posit Science or Lumosity, that are designed to boost your memory and overall cognitive skills.
Socialize regularly. In a study of people over 50, those with larger social networks showed smaller declines in memory as they aged. Doraiswamy explains that this may be because social individuals tend to engage in more brain-boosting mental and physical activities and may have stronger brain circuitry, plus socializing may reduce the negative effect of stress on the brain. Even if you're not the belle-of-the-ball type, make an effort to get out with others. Join an exercise class or a book group, or pass up that solitary walk with Rufus for an hour with other pup lovers at your local dog park.
Find solutions. Writing lists, using a BlackBerry calendar, and slowing yourself down so you can pay attention aren't like wearing a girdle: They don't cause your memory to atrophy by providing support. "Even the best memory champions write things down when they don't want to take the chance of forgetting something," says Doraiswamy. Head to the bookstore to pick up a self-help book that offers memory-boosting strategies.
Go On, Get Involved
Considering the number of people Alzheimer's affects—every 69 seconds someone develops the disease—it is grossly underfunded in terms of research for better treatments and support for the millions who are caring for people with the disease. But you can help make a difference.
Be an agent for change. Visit ActionAlz.org, where you can learn about fundraising opportunities and urge your elected representatives to support and initiate important legislation that could brighten the future for Alzheimer's patients and their families.
Consider a clinical trial. The Alzheimer's Association's TrialMatch site has information on trials for people with Alzheimer's or related dementia and their caregivers, family members, and doctors (go to alz.org/trialmatch). The Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative is searching for individuals with normal and impaired cognition who may ultimately help uncover ways to prevent the disease (go to adni-info.org).
Lift someone up. Keeping their loved one safe is a primary goal of any caregiver. But so many other tasks fall on their to-do list that it can be overwhelming, to say the least. Offering to check in on someone suffering from dementia, bringing over a home-cooked meal, or just helping fold laundry could mean the world to a caregiver. You can also help them learn how to talk to their children about the disease or get their legal and financial planning in order with the Alzheimer's Association Caregiver Notebook. To order, call 800-678-5752 or visit fccatalog.com. Please specify code BKCAREGIVE. $12.95 plus shipping.
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.
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