Editor’s Note: November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month and National Caregivers Month. Along with performing clinical trials to develop treatment that might help slow Alzheimer’s progression, experts also advocate a healthy lifestyle to possibly prevent the terrible disease from even occurring. In the column below, Dr. Alex Wang (pronounced Wong), a neurologist at The Corvallis Clinic, explains how lifestyle habits that promote a healthier heart might also help people decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Dr. Wang is also the principal investigator of an Alzheimer’s study in which The Clinic’s Clinical Research Center is participating.
By Alex Wang, M.D.
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurological disorder in which the deterioration of the brain cells causes memory loss and cognitive decline. It starts mild and gets progressively worse.
Postmortem evaluations of brains afflicted with Alzheimer’s always show tiny additions in the nerve tissue called plaques and tangles. Plaques are found between the dying cells in the brain from the build-up of a protein called beta-amyloid. The tangles occur within the brain neurons from a disintegration of another protein called tau.
However, some people have the trademark Alzheimer’s plaques and tangles but do not develop the symptoms of the disease. Autopsy studies suggest that plaques and tangles may be present in the brain without causing symptoms of cognitive impairment unless the brain also shows evidence of vascular disease. In fact, some autopsy studies show that as many as 80 percent of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease also have cardiovascular disease.
Controlling cardiovascular risk factors in fact may be the most cost-effective and helpful approach to protecting brain health. Thus, the same healthful habits that help prevent high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol may also help thwart Alzheimer’s.
Below are some ways to a healthier heart – and brain:
Regular physical exercise may lower the risk of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia (caused by impaired blood flow to brain). Some evidence suggests exercise may directly benefit brain cells by increasing blood and oxygen flow. As mentioned above, even stronger evidence suggests exercise may protect brain health through its benefits to the cardiovascular system. Moderate exercise is safe for most people but talk to your provider before starting an exercise program.
Like exercise, diet may have its greatest impact on brain health through its effect on heart health. The best current evidence suggests that heart-healthy eating, such as the Mediterranean diet, also may help protect the brain. A Mediterranean diet includes relatively little red meat and emphasizes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish, and nuts, olive oil.
Stop smoking and drink moderately
Smoking and heavy drinking are two of the most preventable risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. Not only does smoking increase the odds for those over 65 by nearly 79 percent, researchers at Miami’s Mt. Sinai Medical Center warn that a combination of these two behaviors reduces the age of Alzheimer’s onset by six to seven years.
Stimulate your mind
Older adults who stay mentally active may be at lower risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Reading, playing cards and other strategy games, doing crossword puzzles may help them avoid symptoms of the disease. In addition, learn something new, such as a musical instrument or a foreign or sign language. Seek out novelty and challenge!
Your brain needs regular, restful sleep in order to function at peak capacity. Deep, dreamy sleep is critical for memory formation and retention. If nightly sleep deprivation is slowing your thinking and affecting your mood, you may be at greater risk of developing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The vast majority of adults need at least eight hours of sleep per night. You can help yourself get a good night’s sleep by establishing a regular sleep schedule and by creating a relaxing bedtime ritual, such as stretching or dimming the lights. Such habits send a message to your brain that it’s time for recuperative sleep.
Stress that is chronic or severe takes a heavy toll on the brain, leading to shrinkage in a key memory area of the brain known as the hippocampus, hampering nerve cell growth, and increasing your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. It’s important to try and relax. This can be accomplished by simply doing deep, abdominal breathing, practicing yoga or going for walk. Some studies associate spirituality with better brain health. Regular meditation, prayer and reflection may ease the effects of stress.
Keep active social and family life
Human beings are highly social creatures who don’t thrive in isolation. Neither do our brains. Studies show that the more connected we are, the better we fare on tests of memory and cognition. Staying socially active may even protect against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, so make your social life a priority.
Oftentimes, we become more isolated as we get older, but there are many ways to keep your support system strong and develop new relationships, such as volunteering or joining a club or social group.
Avoid head trauma
There appears to be a strong link between future risk of Alzheimer’s and serious head trauma, especially when injury involves loss of consciousness. You can help reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s by protecting your head. Wear a seat belt, use a helmet when participating in sports and make your home fall proof.
Quite simply, lifestyle habits that enhance overall physical and mental well-being, may also be a path to avoiding the debilitating and tragic consequences of Alzheimer’s disease.
Weijia “Alex” Wang, M.D., is a neurologist at The Corvallis Clinic. He can be reached at 541-754-1274.