Alzheimer’s Disease – Is Prevention Possible?
Alzheimer’s disease is a complex, progressive illness that gradually damages a person’s ability to think, reason and remember. An estimated 5.1 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s. As the baby boom generation reaches retirement age, this number is expected to increase dramatically. Except for those with a rare genetic predisposition, the majority of individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s will not experience early symptoms of the disease until age 60 or beyond. After age 65, however, a retiree’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every five years. While the cure for Alzheimer’s disease has not yet been found, scientists increasingly are asking whether prevention is possible.
Research suggests that Alzheimer’s takes decades to develop, so that microscopic changes in the brain occur long before symptoms begin to surface. In the early stages of the disease, abnormal clumps or plaques begin to form in the brain along with tangled bundles of nerve fibers. While the exact cause of these ‘plaques’ and ‘bundles’ are not known, it is believed that damage to the body’s circulatory system may be partially responsible. Other chronic diseases that also damage vascular blood flow, including high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, are now being connected to the declining brain health frequently associated with Alzheimer’s.
The Promise of Prevention
While we cannot change our age or genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s, the good news is that minor lifestyle changes may reap big rewards in slowing or preventing onset of this devastating disease. For example, most of us are well aware of the often touted health benefits of maintaining good nutrition, exercise, and social activities. However, emerging research suggests that exercising for as little as 15 minutes several times per week may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by 40 percent!
Exercise improves blood flow to the brain, and promotes the growth of tiny blood vessels and nerve cell connections that improve overall brain health. Exercise also stimulates the body’s immune system to clean the brain by removing cellular debris believed to contribute to the build-up of plaques. Further, enhanced blood flow and immune functioning are believed to reduce brain inflammation - a hallmark of the disease.
Diet and Nutrition – The Role of Antioxidants and Anti-Inflammatory Compounds
Alzheimer’s researchers are investigating the role of good nutrition in helping to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. Certain antioxidant-rich foods may help prevent the buildup of harmful molecules in the brain. These molecules, known as "free radicals," are believed to build up in brain tissue, causing brain inflammation, damaging nerve cells and forming the destructive clumps associated with brain plaques. Eating a high-fat diet essentially hits the brain with a "double whammy." First, it contributes to high blood cholesterol and high blood pressure, which hamper healthy blood flow to the brain, and second, it likely contributes to the production of free radicals. The good news is that we can take charge of our brain health by maintaining a healthy diet.
Good nutrition involves maintaining a low sugar, low fat diet that consists of eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean meats and fish. Foods that contain high levels of antioxidants or anti-inflammatory components are believed to greatly improve brain health and functioning. For example, eating green leafy and cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cauliflower, provide the brain with powerful chemicals to boost brain health.
Scientists are exploring the role of certain centuries-old, cultural dietary factors in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s. Some Mediterranean cultures, for instance, tend to consume antioxidant-rich diets consisting of plenty of vitamin-rich beans, fruits, fish and olive oil, while greatly reducing their intake of fatty meats. Similarly, the Indian spice turmeric, often used in curry dishes, contains medicinal compounds believed to fight the brain inflammation that can lead to plaque build-up in the brain. Adding more fresh fruits to your diet, which are naturally low in calories and high in antioxidants, are an easy method of improving nutrition and overall brain health. While no one specific diet holds the key to Alzheimer’s prevention, good nutrition and a healthy diet promote overall brain health and reduce risk of brain disease.
Keeping Mentally and Socially Active
When it comes to brain health, the adage, “use it or lose it” applies. Keeping mentally fit involves performing activities that keep the mind active, alert and engaged. Reading, playing word puzzle games, learning a new skill or hobby, and visiting a museum are examples of activities that stimulate brain health. Remember, the brain needs exercise, too!
For reasons not yet fully understood, socializing with others is extremely beneficial to promoting brain health. Attending church, dining with friends, joining a club, and volunteering all provide opportunities to socialize and to keep the brain energized. Mental stimulation and social activity play a vital role in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s by maintaining brain functioning at peak capacity. Interestingly, recent research suggests that retirees who remain mentally and socially active may lower their risk of developing Alzheimer’s by more than 40 percent. In several large landmark studies involving nuns and priests who had donated their brains postmortem for scientific research, researchers concluded that remaining socially active in retirement not only helps to prevent Alzheimer’s, but also significantly slows the progression of the disease.
Alzheimer’s is a complex illness believed to involve a variety of factors to include age, genetics, and healthy lifestyle. While there remain more questions than answers on how best to combat Alzheimer’s disease, we now know that exercise, good nutrition and diet, and keeping mentally and socially active hold powerful prevention possibilities.
To receive more information about Alzheimer’s as well as caregiving resources, call the BAC Member Assistance Program (MAP) toll-free at 1-888-880-8222 to speak confidentially to MAP’s licensed mental health practitioners.