The Fight to End Alzheimer’s Should Start Earlier Than You Think
By SHANNON HALLOWAY & MELISSA KALENSKY
A patient walked into clinic wearing only a hospital gown, feet bare and EKG wires trailing. Just hours after having surgery, his dementia had prompted him to wander out of the hospital and walk two miles to proudly show off his new surgical scar to a familiar face. Physically unharmed, his heart was easy to fix but his memory was beyond repair.
Though the road to a cure has long seemed insurmountable, dementia advocates have recently found reason to celebrate. Scientists announced this week the development of a new tool that may help identify people who are prone to Alzheimer’s disease, and Bill Gates has made a 100 million dollar pledge to join the fight. These vital research dollars give renewed hope to millions of families who already realize that by the time any kind of dementia is diagnosed, treatment options are incredibly limited.
With no current cure, prevention should be the primary focus but often remains ignored until it’s too late.
Commonly termed “memory loss,” Alzheimer’s disease is actually a progressive death of nerve cells with associated decline in memory and function. As more of the brain is affected as Alzheimer’s disease progresses, patients increasingly rely on caregivers, usually devoted family members. Over 5.5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, costing our nation $259 billion, and leading to immeasurable physical and emotional toll in patients and caregivers alike.
Although Alzheimer’s disease is one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide prevention strategies are almost never addressed with younger age groups or before symptoms begin.
Luckily, we know of some strategies that everyone can use to lower your risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Memory loss: know what is normal. Mild forgetfulness related to normal aging may include losing your glasses once in a while. But memory loss that impacts your daily life is not normal. If you’re not sure, talk with a care provider who can help test your memory.
2. Genetics matter, but it’s not everything. Have you talked to your family about memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease? If you have a family member with Alzheimer’s disease, that may mean you carry the gene that predisposes the individual for Alzheimer’s disease. However, just because you have family history, doesn’t mean that you will automatically develop the disease. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can prevent these genes from “turning on” or expressing themselves with that negative health outcome.
3. Lifestyle matters! A healthy diet and physical activity prevents a host of chronic diseases, and Alzheimer’s disease is included in this.
a. Eat like a heart patient. For diet, stick with heart-healthy options, including the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) or the Mediterranean diet, which both emphasize vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and limits sweets, salty foods, and red meat. No Alzheimer’s disease diet has been tested or approved yet, but a large trial that combines the DASH and Mediterranean is underway.
b. Just keep moving. In particular, do enough activity to get your heart pumping 150 minutes or more per week, which increases blood flow to the brain. This is crucial for preventing Alzheimer’s disease and for preventing diseases that can impact brain health, like heart disease or diabetes.
c. Get a good night’s sleep, most nights. Not getting enough Rapid Eye Movement (REM or the restorative, dream-stage sleep) is related to higher risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In particular, poor sleep can cause the formation of tangles in the brain that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.
d. Train your brain. The jury is still out on brain games, or cognitive training programs. There are commercial programs that aim to improve cognition, but the evidence is mixed for Alzheimer’s disease prevention. What may be more beneficial, especially over long-term, is to engage in enriching activities – learn a new language, practice dance, or play games that are challenging and fun.
e. Smoking is still bad. Actively smoking, especially in midlife, is related to developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life. If you needed another reason to stop smoking, add Alzheimer’s disease risk to the list.
4. Chronic conditions increase risk. Physical and mental health are directly related to brain health. Certain chronic health conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and depression all increase risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Getting treatment means taking one more step to preserving memory as you age.
Despite other medical advancements, Alzheimer;s̶< and other forms of dementia haven’t seen the major advances in treatment like other diseases in recent years. While researchers work to develop improved treatments, let’s focus on prevention. Regardless of your age, if memory loss is a topic that hasn’t come up in the exam room, it’s time to speak up.
Shannon Halloway is a postdoctoral research fellow at Rush University College of Nursing. Melissa D. Kalensky is an assistant professor at Rush University College of Nursing and a family nurse practitioner. They are both Public Voices Fellows through The OpEd Project.