(dailyRx News) For a youth-obsessed culture such as ours, growing old appears fraught with perils. Chief among them is losing our mental capacities to dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
A progressive brain disease, Alzheimer's disease slowly and irreversibly destroys memory and thinking skills, leaving a person almost incapable of performing even simple daily functions. It's the most common cause of dementia, the loss of cognitive functioning--thinking, remembering, and reasoning--to such an extent that it interferes with a person's daily life and activities. According to recent estimates, between 2.4 and 4.5 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer's.
Many of us work hard from the time we enter the workplace until we decide it's time to leave so we can relax and enjoy the fruits of our hard work and indulge in interests and activities we put off while fulfilling responsibilities as working adults. Therefore, it's understandable that so many of us are interested in preventing a condition that could rob us of our ability to enjoy our "twilight years." But considering the number of risk factors--genes, environment, life history, current lifestyle--that could be involved in the development of Alzheimer's, how can anyone be sure that the choices he or she makes today can make an impact 10, 20, 30 or more years later?
What's Out of Our Hands to Control
As with a number of diseases, some of the risk factors associated with Alzheimer's disease we can control and some of them are out of our control. Here's an overview of the two big risk factors that we can't change no matter how hard we try.
Age. No one can stop or turn back time, so we all inevitably face what is considered the biggest risk factor for Alzheimer's disease: age. Research indicates that the risk of developing the disease doubles every five years once you reach 65 and that people age 85 and older are at greatest risk for the disease. In fact, a number of studies have estimated that up to half of all people older than 85 have Alzheimer's.
Genes. Genomics has made great strides in the past decades, but it hasn't yet given us the ability to alter our genes, especially if those genes predispose us to certain health conditions, such as Alzheimer's. In 1992, scientists discovered three forms of a particular gene that can influence a person's risk for late-onset Alzheimer's, the most common type of the disease that develops after age 60. One of the three forms of the gene occurs in about 40 percent of all people who develop late-onset Alzheimer's, but researchers have also found that having this particular gene form does not mean a person will definitely develop the disease. In fact, about a third of people determined to have Alzheimer's disease (a diagnosis that can only be made after death) do not have this form of the gene.
What's Within Our Power to Control
Because Alzheimer's disease is so complex and because the people who develop it come from all walks of life and have lived very varied lifestyles, researchers looking for insight into the disease have come to believe the following risk factors probably play some role. However, they've yet to uncover indisputable proof of their theories. Nevertheless, they put forth these risk factors as ones that people can influence so as to improve their chances for avoiding this tragic disease.
Physical activity. We're all well aware how staying active helps staving off heart disease, diabetes, cancer and certain other health conditions. Research thus far appears to point to the benefit of regular physical activity for the brain. Although they've yet to discover how exercise influences Alzheimer's risk, investigators in one study looking at the relationship between physical activity and the risk of Alzheimer's in some 1,700 adults ages 65 years and older over a six-year period found that participants who exercised for at least 15 minutes three or more times a week had a 35- to 40-percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer's compared to participants who exercised fewer than three times a week. Combined with the evidence linking regular physical activity to better health from the neck down, seems like those numbers should be compelling us to get off the couch and get moving, right?
How might a regular exercise regimen help you beat Alzheimer's? Scientists are entirely sure, but studies have indicated a link between activity and good cognition health. For example, studies using older rats and mice have shown that exercise increases the number of small blood vessels supplying blood to the brain and increases the number of connections between nerve cells. Other research has shown exercise elevates the level of certain brain-growth factors in an area of the brain key to memory and learning.
Dietary choices. Over the past few years, a variety of foodstuffs have grabbed headlines for their apparent brain-boosting powers. Certain fish and other foods with high levels of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) may help keep the brain and nerves healthy. A component of turmeric in one study stopped the build-up of beta-amyloid plaque, which most researchers believe is a key cause of Alzheimer's disease, in the brains of rodents. The antioxidants found in green tea, fruits such as cranberries, blueberries and strawberries, green leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables and a number of other foods may reduce inflammation that could contribute to cognitive decline.
While the mechanisms by which certain foods appear to impact the development of Alzheimer's is undetermined, the studies seem to point to this basic truth: Eating a healthful diet with plenty of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables that's low in saturated fats and added sugars benefits overall health, which can go a long way to preventing Alzheimer's disease, not to mention other chronic health problems.
Chronic diseases. Investigators for years have noticed that several common chronic diseases--heart disease, stroke, diabetes--appear linked in some way to decreased cognitive functioning and Alzheimer's disease. Do these chronic diseases somehow cause the disease, or do they all share a common hazard? Evidence is mounting that damaging the network of blood vessels that carry blood throughout our bodies may contribute to Alzheimer's or affect its severity--and that's what these chronic health conditions do.
Most of the chronic conditions people suffer today are highly preventable by being more mindful of what we eat and drink, how much we are active, how we handle stress and how we use other potentially habit-forming substances, such as alcohol and tobacco. If there is a connection between chronic diseases that damage the vascular system and Alzheimer's, wouldn't it be smart to not develop one of those diseases in the first place, thereby keeping the blood vessels healthy?
Stress. Just as stress can elevate a person's risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and other health concerns, some studies have shown that stress may also make a person more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. Additionally, depression and some other mental health issues have been studied for possible links to the disease, but nothing concrete has been uncovered. However, it's highly doubtful that living under constant stress or other highly emotional states does much to benefit one's health, so learning how to relax and seeking professional help to address mental health issues are just two more tips for achieving better overall health.
Social and intellectual stimulation. As with many of the preceding risk factors, some studies have shown that people who engage their brains with social interactions, educational activities and other "brainy" pursuits appear to have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's than other people who don't. Does this mean the wallflower is doomed while the social butterfly is saved? Hardly, but taking part in mentally stimulating activities appear to keep it healthy. Why not pick up a book, take an informal class at your local community college or take part in some kind of social group that meets regularly? A few studies have even suggested playing video games might help reduce a person's risk for Alzheimer's disease.
While we don't have a clear set of answers to the questions, "What causes Alzheimer's and how can I avoid developing it?" scientific understanding of the disease continues to progress and offer new hope both for treatment and prevention. In the meantime, our best bet to prevent cognitive decline is to cultivate and maintain habits that promote physical, emotional and intellectual well-being. Alzheimer's disease is not an inevitable part of growing old, but we don't have to surrender to it.