5 Things You Can Do to Prevent Alzheimer’s

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New studies on dementia give hope for the future.
By Larry Schwartz

Lots of studies show that our happiest days are likely to be in our golden years. The combination of experience, wisdom, and maybe even a better sex life makes the post-50 years something to look forward to. But lurking in the background are two X-factors that have the potential to dampen the good times: Alzheimer’s disease and age-related dementia. These conditions, which rob sufferers of their memories, their identities and ultimately, their lives, strike fear in the hearts of most people. 

The statistics are sobering. Up to age 65, the odds are good; only one in 20 people under the age of 65 will develop dementia. But afterward, the risk of developing dementia will double every five years. That’s the bad news. The good news is that current research may very well lead to breakthroughs that will enable doctors to identify signs of Alzheimer’s and dementia much earlier, and we will likely have drugs that can treat it before people even show any symptoms of memory loss.

A new Harvard-backed study just published in the Journal of Neuroscience may go part of the way in realizing this hopeful future. The study focused on a group of older retirees, in their 60s and 70s, who have been dubbed “super-agers.” Though senior citizens, the participants have remained vibrant, their memories clear, and their brains showing no meaningful difference from those a third of their age. While the brain typically shrinks as it ages, the areas of these super-agers’ brains that relate to memory and learning have remained as thick as a 20-year-old’s brain. Further research into understanding the factors that have preserved the super-ager brain will hopefully lead to breakthroughs in preventing the memory loss caused by Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, a number of universities are collaborating in the PREVENT Research Program, a study that aims to follow the brain and cognitive function of middle-aged participants, ages 40 to 59, in order to map the changes in the brain that lead to dementia. The strong belief in the medical community is that dementia is preceded by changes in the brain that occur many years before symptoms develop, and if we can identify those changes, we can predict whether an individual is going to develop dementia and take steps to prevent it by minimizing risk factors, through drugs, diet or cognitive training. PREVENT will take samples of the participants’ blood, saliva and spinal fluid, as well as brain scans, and will monitor the participants initially for two years to identify any markers that might predict future dementia. The hope is to extend the study in order to see how the changes observed affect cognitive function over the long term.

“In the next 10 years we’re going to get more and more evidence about the things people can do to prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Craig Ritchie, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, who is leading the study, told the Telegraph newspaper. “Our aim is to be able to take any given individual and say, 'Well your risk is X percent and here are the things you can personally do to help prevent it.’”

Meanwhile, there are some things dementia experts believe you can do, here and now, to minimize your risk of developing dementia. Here are five of them.

1. Stimulate your brain.

Forget all those brain training games that are so popular in the Apple App Store (unless, of course, you just like doing them for fun). The key to preventing memory loss and cognitive decline is brain stimulation. Keep continuously lighting up the brain by seeing friends, interacting with colleagues at work and taking up new activities that challenge you. If you have been doing crossword puzzles all your life, guess what? They are no longer challenging your brain. Instead, take up a new hobby. Start taking guitar lessons. Learn a new language. The “same old, same old” is your enemy. By challenging your brain with complex tasks, you build up more connections in the brain that will serve you well as age weakens some connections in later life. Think of it as a neural bank account for the future.

2. Take aspirin (after you discuss it with your doctor).

The evidence is mounting that taking a low-dose aspirin a day can lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. One study in Sweden, of women over 70 who were taking aspirin due to high risk of heart disease, found those who were taking aspirin had higher cognitive function and better memory than those who did not take aspirin. A ongoing study called ASCEND of 15,000 volunteers who are taking either aspirin or a placebo hopes to confirm the earlier findings. “Aspirin acts to reduce the risk of blood clotting and therefore heart attack and stroke, and both of those two things are associated with measurable effects on cognitive function,” Jane Armitage of Oxford University, the lead researcher in the study, told the Telegraph.

3. Take fish oil that contains Omega-3s.

While to date there have not been any large-scale studies about the effects of fish oils in the prevention of dementia, some small studies have indicated it may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. More extensive research will hopefully bear out these findings, but meanwhile, eating fish high in Omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to be excellent for your overall health.

4. Help your brain by helping your heart.

Doctors have identified seven risk factors they think may lead to Alzheimer’s: high blood pressure, mid-life obesity, diabetes, smoking, lack of exercise, low level of education, and depression. The first five of these factors have also been associated with heart disease. We know that by controlling blood pressure, maintaining a good weight, and exercising and not smoking, we can help keep our hearts healthy. The same activities may also help minimize our dementia risks. Of these, exercise seems to be the most important. The body and the brain are linked; move your body to keep your mind alert. Even a brisk 20-minute walk a day will do the trick.

5. Drink champagne (moderately!).

A study out of the University of Reading in the U.K. conducted on rodents found that consuming one to three glasses of champagne a week improved spatial memory and might help prevent cognitive decline in the brain. Phenolic compounds in the bubbly, which come from the grapes used to make champagne, the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, are credited with favorably altering the proteins in the brain linked to memory storage. The effects were similar to the positive effects of red wine (although it is flavonoids in red wine that are credited in that libation). Studies on animals do not always correlate to humans, but enough is known about the positive effects of (moderate) alcohol consumption to say, “Drink up!” As always, with alcoholic beverages, more is not better. A glass or two is fine (as long as you are not driving). Anything more and you may do yourself damage.

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