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Successful Aging: How can I prevent Alzheimer’s disease?

Q. I recently returned from visiting a friend who is in the memory care section of an assisted living facility. He has Alzheimer’s disease. I was depressed seeing my friend so immobile and unable to communicate as well as seeing others in a room with a television no one was watching. What can I do to protect myself from such an existence? Many thanks. S.B.

Dear S.B.

You have asked a question that is challenging the greatest minds in the country, and perhaps the world. To date, scientists don’t fully understand what causes Alzheimer’s disease.

Here is what they do know: A genetic component plays a role for those who begin to get the disease their 30s through the mid-60s, affecting less than 10 percent of the cases. This is considered early onset. Late-onset, the most common form, generally affects individuals after age 65 and likely is due to a complex series of brain changes occurring over decades that include genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors, according to the National Institute on Aging. Additional possible causes include inflammation in the brain and vascular risk factors. There is no cure.

Recently, Congress increased funding for Alzheimer’s disease research by $414 million, bringing the total amount of funding to $1.8 billion. This investment is considered critical to help reach the national goal of preventing and effectively treating Alzheimer’s disease by 2025 — not a moment too soon.

A little background: The disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer. In 1906, he noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who died of an unusual mental illness characterized by memory loss, language problems and unpredictable behavior. After she died, he examined her brain and found abnormal clumps now called amyloid plaques and tangled bundles of fibers called tau or tangles.

Plaques and tangles are still considered main features of the disease, as is loss of connection between neurons. These are nerve cells that transmit messages between different parts of the brain and from the brain to muscles and organs in the body. Scientists indicate that it is likely that damage to the brain starts about a decade before symptoms of memory loss and cognitive changes become noticeable.

Prevention (to the extent possible) can be summed up in two words: Healthy habits. Add to that a little luck, and still that is no guarantee.

A Harvard Health letter (January 2017) recommends the following healthy habits:

Exercise: A review by scientists at the University of Southern California found that as many as one in three cases of Alzheimer’s disease were preventable through lifestyle changes. One step in prevention was physical exercise. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends individuals aged 65 and older to engage in 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise every week. Regarding vigorous aerobic exercise, WHO recommends 75 minutes a week. Add to that muscle-strengthening activity. These recommendations are part of a report indicating the research is based on a few meta-analyses that yielded some conflicting results on the benefits of exercise on Alzheimer’s disease, perhaps due to lack of adherence to methodological standards. Yet the National Institute on Aging finds convincing evidence that physical exercise helps prevent the development of Alzheimer’s or slows the progression in people who have symptoms. My perspective – regardless of conflicting research, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose, so let’s get moving.

Eat a Mediterranean diet: This has been shown to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease or slow its progression. Partial adherence to such a diet is better than nothing, according to the Harvard Health Letter. The diet includes fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, olive oil, nuts, legumes, fish, a moderate amount of poultry, eggs, and dairy, as well as moderate amounts of red wine and a sparing amount of red meat.

Get enough sleep: “Growing evidence suggests that improved sleep can help prevent Alzheimer’s and is linked to greater amyloid clearance from the brain,” says Dr. Gad Marshall of the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital (as quoted in the Health Letter). Aim for seven to eight hours per night.

Other research indicates the importance of stress management, learning new things and being socially engaged.

S.B., Your question is an important one. The recommendations by the National Institute of Health of exercise, diet and sleep are fundamental to healthy living and healthy aging. Although the research may not be conclusive, integrating these lifestyles into our daily lives can only serve us well. So, let’s all give it a try.

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