While there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, following a brain health checklist could help reduce your risk
Leon Hill’s dad has Alzheimer’s disease. It’s been six years now. As he puts it, he and his family are “trying to manage it the best we can. My mom is providing some care with the help of the Alzheimer’s Association. We’ve had some people come in during the day, so Mom can have respite. It’s probably as good a situation as you can have in a bad situation.”
Hill spends many of his autumn Friday nights at Lynchburg City Stadium calling E.C. Glass football games from the press box. He also is the father of two young children. Developing Alzheimer’s, which has been shown to have genetic links, is “one of my great fears,” he said. “To be frank, it is to lose my mind and not know who [my children] are.”
Hill also is on the board of the Central and Western Virginia Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, which bills itself as “the brains behind saving yours.” Alzheimer’s is a brain disease, after all.
While physicians use words like “beta-amyloid,” “tau protein” and “tangles” to explain what’s going on in the brain with Alzheimer’s, the Association simply defines it as “a progressive brain disorder that damages and eventually destroys brain cells, leading to memory loss and changes in thinking and other brain functions.”
As described by Dr. Peter Betz, geriatric psychiatrist at Centra Piedmont Psychiatric Center, the “cardinal features” of the disease are “memory loss or amnesia, difficulty with language and coordination, naming and understanding what objects are and executive function.”
Betz explained executive function as things like, “organizing, planning, sequencing” and “being able to understand complex ideas.”
It’s likely everybody knows someone who has Alzheimer’s disease or has died of Alzheimer’s or is one of the estimated 15 million family members who are caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or other dementias.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, it affects millions of Americans in one way or another. Recent stats from the organization are frightening and include the following, among others:
“Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.”
“More than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. By 2050, that number could rise as high as 16 million.”
“Every 66 seconds, someone in the United States develops the disease.”
“It kills more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.”
“Every 66 seconds, someone in the United States develops the disease.”
“It kills more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.”“In 2017, Alzheimer’s and other dementias will cost the nation $259 billion. By 2050, these costs could rise as high as $1.1 trillion.”
Naturally, people might wonder how to avoid getting this devastating and incurable disease. Luckily, there are things that might reduce your risk.
No smoking. According to the Alzheimer’s Association studies have shown that smoking “increases the risk of cognitive decline” and “quitting smoking can reduce that risk to levels comparable to those who have not smoked.”
Protect your head. Repeated concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, are thought to increase the risk of dementia. Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia. The Alzheimer’s Association also recommends seatbelt use and wearing helmets during contact sports or while bike riding.
Speaking of your head, the Association also recommends taking care of mental health as “some studies link a history of depression with increased risk of cognitive decline.”
Vigorous exercise. “Mine might be different than yours, but it’s got to be vigorous,” Betz said. “Get your heart rate up, sweat, pores open, moving constantly for 20 or more minutes. … It’s got to be consistent and persistent.”
Get enough sleep. Betz recommends getting eight hours of sleep each night, and he recommends getting that sleep during the same time period each night, seven days a week. It’s all part of what he calls “sleep hygiene,” training your body to sleep well.
There are other rules, too: “There are only two things that happen in the bed: sleeping or having sex,” he said. “Not reading in the bed. Not eating or watching TV. No talking about the day, planning vacation, thinking about house colors. Bed is for sleep and sex and you can’t sleep anywhere outside of the bed.”
And taking a sleeping pill doesn’t cut it. Betz said he has “great concerns about anything that we think outsmarts nature.”
Get out among the people. “Staying socially engaged may support brain health,” says the Alzheimer’s Association, which recommends volunteering, joining choirs or clubs, spending time with friends and family and “pursuing social activities that are meaningful to you.”
Hill interacts with lots of people at football games. “Football games allow me to gather significant amounts of data, look at what I’m saying and express it to people in the stands in a way they can understand,” he said, adding that while people are rooting for their kids on the field, “I try to engage them on a level that allows them to feel comfortable.”
Be heart healthy and eat well. “The Mediterranean diet is the healthiest management diet that we can possibly find on this planet,” Betz said. “Others purport that they’re even better, but they’re troublesome and difficult.
“It’s a diabetic diet, of fresh fish, fruits and nuts rather than processed food. Eat a diabetic diet, even if you’re not diabetic and you’re going to get 80 to 90 percent of the Mediterranean diet.”
On that line, there is thought to be a link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Among the risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s, Dr. Charles Joseph, a neurologist with the Liberty University College of Osteopathic Medicine, listed “diabetes mellitus of 10 to 20 years duration before the development of dementia.”
He added that diabetes often develops in middle age and people who want to reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s should “make sure they’re controlling diabetes.”
Keep learning and challenge yourself. “That doesn’t mean just mental activity,” Betz said. “Lots of people say, ‘I do word searches.’ That doesn’t count. Mental exercise needs to be just as hard as the physical exercise. … I’m not denying that word searches can be fun. Something that really causes a lot of brain cells to come into play, in order to problem solve.
“Reading a romance novel or thriller might be great fun [and it’s] better than watching TV, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Like playing chess, concentrating on moves and counter strategies. Learning a new philosophy, understanding ways to think about the world that you’ve never explored before. Learning a new language. It can’t be casual. It’s got to be work.”
As Joseph puts it, “The more you use your brain, the more connections you have. The more you have the more you have to lose.”
Hill, a lifelong athlete, said, “Your mind is a muscle. Anything that you exercise and work out has a better likelihood of being stronger and lasting longer. … The healthier we are the better off we are going to be. Silly as it sounds, you rarely see healthy people keeling over.”
“Most healthy people do relatively well. Even if they have some kind of medical emergency, they recover faster. Pay attention to your mind, heart and body. We believe right now, the healthier you are, the healthier your mind is. The more engaged you are, the better you’re going to be long term.”