First, the statistics: over 5 million people currently have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States alone, almost two thirds of those women.
It’s estimated that by 2050, that number will triple. Over half a million people die from the disease every year.
Now the good news.
A study recently released by researchers at the University of Cambridge analyzed the contributing factors of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. What they found is that this debilitating degenerative disease can be prevented through lifestyle and diet changes in as many as one third of all cases:
“After accounting for non-independence between risk factors, around a third of Alzheimer’s diseases cases worldwide might be attributable to potentially modifiable risk factors. Alzheimer’s disease incidence might be reduced through improved access to education and use of effective methods targeted at reducing the prevalence of vascular risk factors (eg, physical inactivity, smoking, midlife hypertension, midlife obesity, and diabetes) and depression.”
This should come as no surprise; the incidence of Alzheimer’s has increased steadily since 2000, from 411,000 new cases per year then to over 500,000 today. It’s anticipated that new cases by 2050 will be almost one million each year.
Even taking into consideration the aging population of Baby Boomers, this is an inordinate rise for this type of disease (similar increases are being experienced world-wide), especially in view of the fact that other life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and stroke have declined in the same period, presumably due to reductions in cigarette smoking and better recognition and management of hypertension and diabetes.
Am I a lost cause?
There are genetic factors that contribute to the development of neurodegenerative disease as with most other serious medical conditions; predisposition, however, doesn’t mean it’s a foregone conclusion.
It’s the other–preventable–factors that are now apparent. With knowledge comes the power to stave off this type of horrendous disease.
The risks in the study in order of relevance in the U.S. are:
- Physical activity
- Low educational attainment
- High blood pressure
By looking at this list, we can see that all factors can be influenced by lifestyle and diet–in other words, preventable.
Some strategies for preventing general cognitive decline and the onset of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia:
Not enough emphasis can be put on the benefits of regular vigorous physical activity for every body at every age. Exercise promotes not only cardiovascular health but overall physical and mental well-being. Make sure to stay sufficiently hydrated.
2. Keep your brain active
Challenge yourself with puzzles, books, learning a language or new skill, taking a course at the local community college. Exercising your brain reduces your risk of dementia.
Cut out processed foods and refined sugars, eat more vegetables of all colors, eat healthful proteins and fats, and you can manage your blood sugar levels–often without pharmaceuticals. Support your immune system and don’t eat foods you’re sensitive to, even if they taste good (watch the wheat and dairy!).
High blood pressure has implications for all bodily systems. Exercise helps regulate blood pressure, as does diet. Moderate sodium intake.
If you are more than 10 pounds overweight, try to lose some to get as close to your optimal weight as you can (it’s different for each person so consult a professional to find out what that means for you). Simple changes mean a lot in diet and lifestyle. Stay away from artificial sweeteners–they may have zero calories but they’ve been associated with obesity and neurologic decline.
6. Stop smoking
It’s incredibly difficult but so totally worth it. With the money you save, you can take a weekend vacation every year. You’ll feel better, look better, smell better, and live better and longer.
There is a definite link between chronic stress and/or depression and the development of Alzheimer’s. Meditation has been found effective in reducing both. Getting enough sleep is critical for brain and general health. Add herbs and foods to your diet that have been found to ease stress and depression. Maintain or cultivate an active social life; not only does it promote mental health, but physical brain health as well.
With the speed, prevalence, and ease with which we can now obtain information, lack of formal education in the U.S. is no longer an excuse for ignorance. With some exceptions, the great majority of people have access to a computer even if they don’t own one–check the public library. We can educate ourselves as well–or better–by doing our own research.
The results of this recent study should have all of us jumping up and down! We can reclaim power and control over our own lives, kicking aging and cognitive decline square in the derrière.