Founding the Memory Cafe group for Alzheimers patients, no one knew what the response would be. 50 people attended the first meeting, and a steady following has validated the need for fellowship between patients and caretakers. Alton Strupp/CJ
In recent years, we have made great strides in unraveling some of the mysteries surrounding Alzheimer’s disease. We know, for example, that Alzheimer’s involves changes in the brain, and the problem appears to be abnormal deposits of amyloid (“sticky”) proteins that form plaques and tangles that stop nerves from functioning and interacting properly. Eventually, nerves die and the brain shrinks, disrupting nearly all brain functions. Alzheimer’s most often begins in folks 65 and older, and it impacts about 6 percent of folks in this age group.
In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, there are few signs. Loss of short-term memory is typical, but this is common with old age, so don’t panic because you are having a hard time remembering recent events or where you last placed your car keys. However, when symptoms advance to include easily getting lost, mood swings and behavior issues, problems with language and such, it’s time to be concerned. When Alzheimer’s is finally diagnosed, the rate of progression can vary greatly from person to person. As declining brain function impacts bodily functions, life expectancy is on the order of about three to nine years.
WHAT IS THE ROOT CAUSE?
The big question that remains unanswered is what starts the downward spiral. Considerable research efforts are ongoing to address this question, but the best we can do thus far is identify factors that correlate with the onset of Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, correlations can be misleading and they don’t reveal the cause.
Several factors correlate with the onset of Alzheimer’s, and the strongest is genetics – your family history. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do about that. The same is true for being female. Women live longer, and the decline in estrogen production after menopause may be a factor in promoting Alzheimer’s. Other factors include head trauma earlier in life, cardiovascular diseases and especially stroke.
What about all the other things you’ve heard of over the years that we encounter in everyday life? The list includes such things as exposure to aluminum used in soda cans and aluminum foil, viruses that cause the common cold, microwave ovens, E coli bacteria, artificial sweeteners, deodorants, dietary cholesterol … the list goes on. But, to date, none of these have proven to be important. The latest list of possible culprits under investigation includes exposure to high amounts of chemicals, particularly fertilizers and pesticides, plus benzene (found in crude oil and used to make plastics) and toluene (a solvent used in paint thinners, nail polish remover, glue, etc.).
We all want to do what we can to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, so where is the best place to start? If you are taking steps to avoid heart disease, stroke and diabetes you also are making significant strides to prevent Alzheimer’s as well. For example, invest considerable time and effort on the “Big Three.” Don’t smoke, exercise daily and follow a healthy diet rich in vegetables, fruits and lean protein primarily from fish high in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, mackerel, tuna).
Other potentially important preventive steps include being socially active and keeping your mind busy which helps keep it sharp. Choose activities that interest you, challenge you and stretch you mentally. This could include such things as reading, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, chess, checkers, creative writing, taking adult education classes, playing games that force you to think and strategize. Key core elements appear to be staying interested in life, being curious and engaging in lifelong learning. Recent studies indicate that AD patients did less of these activities than others, but they engaged in more hours watching TV.
EXERCISING YOUR BODY EXERCISES YOUR BRAIN
When you review the many research studies about preventing Alzheimer’s, a surprising finding has been the consistency of daily exercise as a major preventive influence. I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth repeating again. Physical exercise is good for your body and your brain, because it requires highly sophisticated communication of the nerves on one side of the brain with the other, plus remarkably precise coordination of nerve firing sequences, stimulating one group of nerves while suppressing another from one moment to the next. As far as the brain is concerned, exercise is like working crossword puzzles on steroids.
So, assuming you don’t smoke, and if you were going to choose one factor to possibly help you beat Alzheimer’s, my strong advice is to go with exercise. A brisk daily walk is a good place to start.
Reach Bryant Stamford, a professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology at Hanover College, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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