Dispelling the myths of Alzheimer’s

May 23, 2009

by Dr. Carolyn Anderson

Most Seniors do have Alzheimer's DiseaseAlzheimer’s disease is devastating to patients and absolutely heart-wrenching to those who love and care for them. It is a tragic, neurodegenerative disorder that robs us of our wisdom, memories and our very essence. And although Alzheimer’s has no cure with limited treatment options, there are ways we can live our lives to prevent the onset of this disease.

The Reality of Alzheimer’s

First, it’s important to dispel some of the myths about Alzheimer’s. Many think it’s part of the normal aging process, yet it is more correctly defined as an age-related neurodegenerative disease. The actual prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease is only 1.6% in the 65 to 74 age group, although the prevalence does increase as we age.

All too often, completely normal memory lapses lead people to fear they have Alzheimer’s. Many of my patients exhibit moments of memory lapse and become frightened that they may be “losing it” after a forgotten appointment, or a misplaced item. Alzheimer’s disease is not forgetting where you placed your car keys; it is forgetting what the car keys are for.

Studies show that fear of memory loss can actually hasten memory decline, so stress-management is just as important to our brains as it is to our bodies. There is no evidence that implies that declining cognitive function is the normal consequence of aging; there are healthy aging practices that we can follow to prevent both Alzheimer’s disease as well as the more typical mild age-related memory decline.

Tips to Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease

Follow an anti-inflammatory diet.

There is a radically new and exciting research about age-related disease, suggesting that much of it may be the result of abnormal inflammation or abnormal activity that promotes inflammation. Curb inflammation and you can often curb disease. Achieving this calls for consuming a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables and minimizing processed and fast foods. I recommend following the Anti-Inflammatory Diet by Dr. Andrew Weil, who is an expert on healthy aging.

Reduce your stress.

Cortisol, the main stress hormone released from the adrenal gland is known to be toxic to neurons in the area of the brain that is responsible for emotion and memory, specifically the hippocampus. Neutralizing and reducing stress in with simple techniques can help to minimize age related deficits in mental function and possibly even decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. These include the old adage: don’t sweat the small stuff, deep breathing exercises, Tai Chi, cardio and resistance training, meditation, and yoga.

Get physical.

Regular exercise is so critical for ongoing health and wellness. Regular cardiovascular and strength exercises decreases the risk of many age-related diseases by reducing stress and keeping your risk of cardiovascular disease down.

Explore supplements.

Oxidative stress is one of the most significant causes of age-related disease and age-related cognitive decline. Although the effect of supplements is somewhat controversial and not the entire answer to prevention, there are three specifically associated with countering oxidative stress that may be worth exploring:

  • Gingko Biloba – an extract of the leaves of the Gingko tree. It increases blood flow to the brain and is shown to slow the progression of dementia and early onset Alzheimer’s.
  • Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR) – an amino acid derivative that is expensive and the studies on it are inconclusive.
  • Phosphatidyl Serine (PS) – a naturally occurring lipid that acts as a brain cell nutrient. It is thought to have a positive effect on memory and concentration and is known to be non-toxic.

Get Enough Rest

Proper sleep and rest are essential to minimize stress and allow your body to adequately repair itself and decrease the risk of age-related cognitive decline.

Keep your cardiovascular health in check.

High blood pressure and high cholesterol should be monitored by your doctor and controlled with diet and exercise modification or with medications.

Use your brain.

The more education you have, the less likely you are to develop Alzheimer’s or to experience the more normal mental decline that is associated with aging. The more new things we learn, the more neuroconnections develop between nerve cells and the brain; the result is something we call neuro-redundancy, meaning more connections can be lost or damaged without apparent loss of function.

Being mentally sharp helps you not only remember where your car keys are, but also keep some diseases at bay, including Alzheimer’s. Lifelong learning and mental gymnastics have the greatest impact; try playing bridge on a regular basis, learning a new language or a new computer program.

Following these tips will decrease your likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s disease and also help prevent many other diseases. Taking care of your body and mind is the best way to avoid the negative aspects of aging.

About the Author: Dr. Carolyn Anderson is the founder of Impowerage. Her mission in life is to empower older adults with the information they need to continue living healthy active lifestyles.

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  • http://blog.elderdepot.com ElderDepot

    Dr. Anderson, thanks for writing up this informative article. I appreciate the quality of articles that you and the Impowerage team share.

    I am so encouraged by the recent studies showing the value of exercise in lowering the risks of dementia. I read a couple of years ago that obesity was a risk factor for dementia but the immense benefits of exercise still surprise me. It seems that a healthy body has a strong correlation to a healthy brain – though, considering my spouse’s grandmother, it’s not an absolute guarantee. Still a study showing a 40% reduction in risk leaves me feeling so hopeful.

    The “stress” or “happiness” factor is one that captivates me. The Rush University Medical Center study showing that seniors with a “sense of fulfillment” seemed less likely to develop Alzheimer’s amazed me. In our stressful society, it’s a good reminder that maybe “happiness” is about more than just feeling good.

    The Journal of the American Medical Association recently shared the results of a six year long study following over 3,000 Seniors that showed that Ginkgo Biloba had no discernible effect on mental ability in the elderly. So that controversy might be a bit less controversial now.

    Just to add to your solid tips, not that I vouch for the quality of all of them, I’ll share a list dementia prevention “mays” that I’ve put together.

    * Coffee – In a 21 year long study, Swedish and Danish researchers found that subjects who drank three to five cups of coffee daily were 65 percent less likely to develop dementia, compared with those who drank two cups or less.
    * Tea – According to a study by the University of Singapore, individuals who drink two to three cups of black tea daily are half as likely to show early signs of dementia as those who rarely drink it.
    * Vitamin D – Researchers in the United Kingdom found that the risk of cognitive impairment was 42 percent higher in individuals who were deficient in vitamin D, and 394 percent higher in those with severe vitamin D deficiency.
    * Curry – Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles believe that turmeric may play a role in slowing down the progression of the neurodegenerative disease.
    * Newspapers – The Mayo Clinic has conducted research indicating that reading magazines and newspapers can help protect against failing memory in old age.
    * Significant Other – Swedish research found that marriage or having a partner halved the risk of developing dementia.
    * Sleeping Habits – Prolonged sleep duration may be associated with an increased risk of dementia.
    * Discipline – Researchers at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago may have discovered a connection between leading a conscientious life and reduced risks of Alzheimer’s disease.
    * Juice – US researchers found the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease was 76% lower for those who drank juice more than three times a week, compared with those who drank it less than once a week.
    * Marijuana – Researchers at Madrid’s Complutense University and the Cajal Institute showed that a synthetic version of the active ingredient in Marijuana may reduce inflammation associated with Alzheimer’s and thus help to prevent mental decline.
    * Statins – Scientists have found further evidence that taking commonly used cholesterol-lowering statins may protect against dementia and memory loss.
    * Slimming Down – A US study of more than 700 adults showed that being overweight is associated with smaller brain volume, a factor linked with dementia.
    * Hormone Replacement Treatment – A study by the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London found that Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) may protect post-menopausal women against memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease.
    * Low Blood Pressure – Finnish Scientists have found that individuals with high blood pressure and raised cholesterol levels have a significantly higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease as they age.
    * Avoiding Soy – A Loughborough University study has found that consuming high levels of some soy products, including tofu, may increase the risk of memory loss.
    * Vitamin E – Japanese Scientists found that a daily vitamin E supplement protects the brain of mice preventing the onset of diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
    * Nicotine – Researchers from the Scripps Research Institute in California, US believe that Nicotine may reduce Alzheimer’s symptoms.
    * Big Head – An American Scientist has claimed that individuals with small heads have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
    * Omega-3 Fatty Acids – UCLA researchers believe that Omega-3 Fatty Acids, such as those found in fish oils, may delay or prevent Alzheimer’s.
    * Alcohol – According to a study by the University of Bari in Italy, individuals who drink alcohol moderately develop dementia at a slower rate than those who drink little. The study also indicated that individuals who drink excessively develop dementia more quickly than moderate drinkers or teetotalers.
    * Video Games – Studies of patients with Alzheimer’s, dementia or attention deficit disorder have found that those who play games have better speech and brain function.
    * Exercise – A Massachusetts-based study found that people who performed moderate to heavy levels of physical activity had a 40 per cent lower risk of developing dementia.
    * Walnuts – A study by the New York State Institute has found that mice who eat walnuts regularly were less likely to develop dementia.
    * Sense of Fulfillment – In a study conducted by the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, researchers found that participants with high scores on the life purpose test were 2.4 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s compared with those who had the lowest scores.

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