The Alzheimer’s International Conference was in Copenhagen last week; and there was a lot of news to share.
In truth, Alzheimer’s disease is seldom out of the news because it affects 5 million people in the U.S. and is the most common form of dementia. It is a relentless and progressive attack on the brain.
As the population ages we are expecting the amount of Alzheimer’s to triple in the next 30 years to more than 16 million. It is now the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., and kills more people each year than breast and prostate cancer combined.
It is a nearly universal experience to fear for our minds when we forget our keys or where we parked the car. We whisper to ourselves: “Could this be the start of Alzheimer’s?” Sometimes we cover this genuine instant of terror with some quip, tossed over our shoulder to ward off bad luck.
But the truth is, we all need to do one thing: Relax.
Sitting in front of a computer that never forgets anything, never tires, never has an “off day,” gives us unrealistic expectations for the flesh and blood hard drive in our heads. If we remembered every moment, recorded the full bandwidth of our vision and other senses, our brains would be overwhelmed and shut down.
While a cerebral reboot might sound refreshing (rinsing off my brain with cool water has always sounded good), forgetting is actually a blessing that keeps us functioning.
We have been trying to get a handle on Alzheimer’s for literally 100 years. In medical school (several decades ago), Alzheimer’s was briefly thought to be an aluminum storage disease. So using an overabundance of caution, the med school students only drank beer out of bottles!
The anatomy behind Alzheimer’s has been known from the first. Neuro tangles are exactly what they sound like, and plaque. The trouble is, we don’t know if these are the causes of the disease or the result. We have even discovered some treatments that clear away the neuro tangles, but it doesn’t seem to help patients. I guess this year we are favoring more egg than chicken.
But there is good news. The medical community looked up from our single-minded pursuit of the perfect medication and found lifestyle changes were actually effective. Ironically, these are all the same things we have been talking about to prevent heart disease.
Preventable measures include a sensible diet that is low in fat, exercise, achieving ideal body weight, management of hypertension or diabetes, and of course, not smoking. These choices limit damage to the blood vessels and protect the heart. The interesting thing is atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries) is not the mechanism for Alzheimer’s to our knowledge, but if it works – and it does – why argue?
One additional lifestyle choice to prevent Alzheimer’s is to exercise the brain. That can be done through reading a challenging book, engaging in thinking games like crosswords or Sudoku, or studying almost anything that is new to you. This not only discourages Alzheimer’s, but makes life a lot more interesting.
This year we found the first proof that lifestyle changes dramatically cut your Alzheimer’s risk. These are more effective that any medication we have come up with to date.
And while you are busy preventing Alzheimer’s, you are also discouraging heart disease, so that means you will live long enough to enjoy all the memories you have collected.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
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