In 2005, at age 40, I became the main caregiver for my mother, Judy, who could no longer balance her checkbook, cook, or clean. I encouraged her to move from her remote lakeside cottage into my small home with my husband and two children. Since then she has lived in assisted living, a “memory care” facility for people with dementia, and now a nursing home.
As I watch my mother’s health deteriorate with Alzheimer’s disease, I’ve become more determined to protect my own. But what can we do to avoid dementia when scientists have found no proven means of prevention, no treatment, and no cure?
We do know that scientists agree on certain risk factors. They include old age; a family history; serious head trauma; poor cardiovascular health; high blood pressure; stroke (including small strokes that are barely noticeable); diabetes; high cholesterol; obesity in middle age; a low education level (which predisposes someone to less learning and brain development over their lifetime); and smoking.
A lesser-known risk factor for dementia is interrupted sleep, such as from obstructive sleep apnea. If you snore, or you feel tired or headachy in the morning, consider getting a referral to a sleep clinic. Research shows that elderly women who have sleep apnea are about twice as likely to develop dementia as those without the condition. People whose nightly sleep is short or disturbed have higher levels of beta amyloid, the protein that causes plaques between brain cells and is widely believed to play a large role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. I am being treated for sleep apnea, and I suspect from her snoring that my mother has always had it. According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, sleep apnea is as common as Type II diabetes.
A research study also found a connection between Alzheimer’s disease and vision. In a study of elderly people over the age of 71, all of whom had normal cognitive functioning at the beginning of the study, those who had undiagnosed or untreated vision problems showed a 9.5-fold increase in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Some researchers say that exercise may be our most powerful antidote for Alzheimer’s disease. Because aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the brain, stimulates the growth of new brain cells, and decreases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes, the Alzheimer’s Association recommends thirty minutes of daily exercise. A recent study shows that daily activity of all kinds—from formal exercise to activities such as washing dishes, cleaning, and cooking—may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, even in people over age 80. People who walk forty minutes a day for a year regain volume in their hippocampus, reversing brain shrinkage. People with mild cognitive impairment who do resistance weight training two times a week over six months show an increase in their memory and executive function (the ability to multi-task).
Social activity and mental stimulation are also crucial. Sports, cultural activities, emotional support, and close personal relationships are all key. We should work as long as we can, volunteer, join social clubs, and travel. We should turn off the television, read, write, do crosswords and puzzles. Play games, learn a new language, or learn to play an instrument. In fact, if we challenge ourselves regularly, our brains will continue to create new cells and connections.
As far as diet is concerned, Alzheimer’s disease has been called “Type III Diabetes,” because of the link between diabetes and pre-diabetes (slightly high blood sugar and “insulin resistance”) and a higher risk of dementia. I am pre-diabetic and insulin-resistant, and someone like me is 70% more likely than someone with normal blood sugar and insulin levels to develop Alzheimer’s disease. While twenty million people in the United States have Type II diabetes, twice that number are insulin resistant and pre-diabetic
There is some evidence that a low-carb diet, which lowers the blood sugar and insulin levels in your brain, may help protect your neurons. I have been eating a “Paleo,” low-carb diet for a year now. Mainstream views of diet and dementia, however, recommend a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet, with the caveat that HDL, or “good” cholesterol, may help protect brain cells. The Alzheimer’s Association recommends lots of dark vegetables and fruits that are high in antioxidants; mono- or polyunsaturated fats such as olive oil, cold water fish high in Omega 3’s (salmon, tuna, mackerel); and nuts such as almonds, pecans, and walnuts. Vitamin E, or vitamin E and C together, vitamin B12, and folate may also decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s.
There are no guarantees, of course, but if we pay attention to these recent studies (and press our federal government for more dementia research) we may find a way to win the war.
Martha Stettinius is the author of the new book Inside the Dementia Epidemic: A Daughter’s Memoir. In honor of World Alzheimer’s Month, through September 30th a portion of the proceeds from the sale of her book will be donated to USAgainstAlzheimer’s, a national advocacy network and campaign dedicated to ending Alzheimer’s by 2020 and providing the general public, policy leaders and media with vital information about Alzheimer’s disease. Inside the Dementia Epidemic is available on Amazon and Barnesandnoble.com. For more information, visit www.insidedementia.com or www.facebook/insidedementia. To contact Martha, email her at email@example.com