What Is Alzheimer's Disease?
Alzheimer's disease (AD) is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain that causes the formation of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain, damaging the nerve cells which control memory, thinking and speech. Early symptoms of AD include short-term memory loss, disorientation and difficulty with communication. As the disease progresses, difficulties with basic reasoning emerge, leading to a host of problems with managing daily living activities. Alzheimer's can leave people unable to recognize familiar people, places and things, and leave them unable to care for themselves.
As the single most common type of age-related dementia, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services estimates that over 5 million Americans (one in eight people over the age of 65) are currently living with AD. Alzheimer's is currently "the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States". There is no known cure for AD, however, by reducing controllable risk factors, using early-intervention techniques and taking preventative steps, older adults can reduce their chances of developing Alzheimer's as well as delay the onset of all forms of age-related dementia.
Fixed Risk Factors
Age is the leading risk factor for developing Alzheimer's: the vast majority of people with this disease are over the age of 65, and according to the Alzheimer's Association: "The likelihood of developing Alzheimer's doubles about every five years after age 65. After age 85, the risk reaches nearly 50 percent" meaning that half of all people aged 85 and older will develop the disease.
Genetics have also been shown to influence the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease; people who have a first-degree blood relative (parent, brother, sister or child) with Alzheimer's have a slightly greater chance of developing the disease themselves; however, it is important to note that not all people with genetic predisposition actually develop Alzheimer's disease.
Variable Risk Factors
Scientists have discovered that people who have suffered from head trauma (such as a concussion, severe whiplash or other type of brain injury) are at an increased risk of developing AD later in life; one study of American servicemen found that veterans who had a history of head injury had double the chances of developing Alzheimer's versus those who never experienced prior brain trauma. This study also found that the severity of the brain trauma was directly linked to the severity of the AD symptoms.
Vascular Disease and Disorders
People who are at elevated risk of cardiovascular disease (including heart attacks, strokes and congestive heart failure) are also at greater risk for developing AD since vascular dementia (a form of dementia caused by damage to the vascular system) is a precursor for Alzheimer's disease.
There is growing research which suggests a link between type 2 diabetes (also known as adult-onset or "sugar" diabetes) and Alzheimer's disease since both insulin resistance and high blood sugar levels lead to inflammation throughout the body, negatively affecting the brain's ability to function.
Stress, Depression and Inactivity
Chronic stress, low levels of physical activity and persistent depression have all been linked to an increased risk of developing AD, although researchers are unclear about the specific reasons why these factors affect the onset of dementia among older adults.
Preventing Alzheimer's Disease - Diet and Lifestyle
Because there is no single definitive cause of Alzheimer's disease and dementia, prevention efforts include taking steps to minimize the variable risk factors through diet and lifestyle changes. Here are some simple steps to take that can reduce the risk factors for Alzheimer's:
Eat A Heart-Healthy Diet
Because both cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes have been linked with an increased risk of AD, experts recommend eating a heart-healthy diet that is low in saturated fats, refined sugars and processed foods while being high in leafy green vegetables, natural fruits and high-fiberwhole grains. Preliminary research by doctors at Rush University has also shown that people whose diets are high in both the antioxidant Vitamin E (found in foods such as raw seeds and nuts, greens, melons and fortified cereals) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (found in cold-water fish like salmon) have significantly lower risk of AD than those whose diets are low in fish and Vitamin E.
Exercise The Brain
According to Dr. Oz, as the body ages, the brain actually shrinks in size. While researchers have not yet been able to make a definitive link between mental practice through memory games and brain-stimulating activities and Alzheimer's prevention practicing mental skills (such as memory, facial recognition, reaction times and reason) may help to both "activate brain regions that might otherwise go unstimulated" and enhance memory skills.
People who suffer from high stress levels often have high level of the hormone cortisol, which can lead to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and brain damage. Excess cortisol leads to insulin resistance and inflammation throughout the body, known risk factors for Alzheimer's disease. Some of the most effective ways to minimize stress include focusing on social activities and hobbies, meditating, listening to music and avoiding stressful situations and people.
Focus On Healthy Sleep
Scientists at Brigham and Women's Hospital have released a study on the connection between sleep and AD; according to their research, older women who either slept less than five hours daily or more than nine hours had significantly worse brain health than women who achieved around seven hours of quality sleep each night. To help minimize the risk of dementia and promote brain health, doctors recommend that older adults should sleep a minimum of seven hours each night.
Include Physical Activity In A Daily Routine
Exercise is a natural way to lower stress, control obesity and reduce the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Moderate exercise also helps improve mental health, combatsdepression and promotes quality sleep, all factors that can help prevent the onset of dementia and age-related brain deterioration.
The Future of Alzheimer's Prevention
While researchers continue to work towards finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease, doctors continue to promote overall health and wellness as the best way to combat the devastating onset on Alzheimer's disease. Most drug trials are currently aimed at treating AD and delaying the rate of brain deterioration among people who already have been diagnosed with the disease, so it is unlikely that an FDA-approved Alzheimer's prevention drug will be available in the foreseeable future.
For all adults, preventing AD should focus on eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and controlling stress by engaging in positive social activities. Always wear protective head gear during sports activities and use a seat belt when in a vehicle to minimize the risk of brain injuries such as concussions.
Older adults are advised to focus on taking care of their bodies and minds by staying active and involved in their communities; volunteering, participating in social groups and learning new skills all promote physical and mental wellness among seniors. Internet-based "brain games" can also be a good tool to help computer-savvy seniors practice their memory and reasoning skills, while crossword puzzles, board games and playing cards are all fun ways to promote brain health.
Adults who reside in retirement residences, care facilities or nursing homes should engage in regular activities thatpromote social interaction and mental stimulation. Ideally, these facilities should provide residents with an activities coordinator or recreation worker who is focused on promoting health and wellness through physical activities, games and hobbies.
Alzheimer's Prevention Resources
As scientists continue to learn more about the causes of Alzheimer's disease, new information is being released on how people can both delay the onset of age-related dementia and prevent AD altogether. Here is a list of resources for the latest information on Alzheimer research, prevention and treatments:
Preventing Alzheimer's Disease: What Do We Know? - This free 24-page printer-friendly PDF book from the National Institute on Aging's Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center provides a plain-language overview of the latest research into AD prevention. It is regularly updated by the NIA to ensure that the content remains current.
Alzheimer's Association e-Newsletter - A free, weekly email newsletter from the Alzheimer's Association. It includes information on the prevention, early detection and treatment of the disease along with caregiver tips and resources.
Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation - A nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention of Alzheimer's disease through research, education and lifestyle modification. This website includes information on preventing AD using a holistic approach.
Dr. Oz's 5-Step Alzheimer's Prevention Plan - Links to video clips and articles from Dr. Oz's TV shows which focused on drug-free ways to minimize the risk of developing AD. Includes articles on brain-boosting diets, nutritional supplements, exercises and how sleep deprivation can lead to brain damage.