Ask people what their major concerns are about getting old, many would probably give similar answers, with “getting Alzheimer’s” as one of the top answers.
And for good reason when you consider these statistics from the Alzheimer’s Association:
- Every 65 seconds, someone in the United States is diagnosed with the progressive brain disease.
- An estimated 5.5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s.
- While deaths from heart disease dropped 9 percent from 2000 to 2017, deaths from Alzheimer’s rose 145 percent. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
- Alzheimer’s is an age-related disease; one in 10 people age 65 and older has it. About 200,000 people under 65 have also been diagnosed with early–onset Alzheimer’s.
Despite such sobering facts, Diana Kerwin, M.D., internal medicine and geriatrics physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Dallas and at Texas Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, finds optimism.
“There’s a lot of possibility out there that in the next couple of years, therapies will make a big impact so the disease won’t be quite so scary,” says Kerwin, president of the Kerwin Research Center, which focuses on finding a cure for Alzheimer’s and other dementia diseases.
“I don’t know if we’ll have a cure, but we will have medications to significantly reduce memory loss,” Kerwin says. “Research is promising. There are over 100 different therapies for Alzheimer’s, including clinical trials. Alzheimer’s isn’t the same diagnosis it was 10 years ago when we didn’t understand it well and didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know what to tell people.”
Now though, there are plenty of articles to be read, websites to be perused, lectures to listen to.
“Not all questions will be answered in one place, but there is a lot of information out there,” Kerwin says. “Lifestyle factors are a very important part of prevention. There are some pretty simple things people can do.”
One caveat: Nothing can completely protect us from developing dementia. But shouldn’t be doing all we can to reduce the risk? Of course. So here are seven ways. These must-knows can help lower the risk for developing Alzheimer’s and other dementias, or help slow down the progression in someone who has already been diagnosed. Be sure, by the way, to talk to your doctor about any concerns and about the steps you’re taking.
Eat a brain-healthy diet
One in particular, the MIND diet, looks especially promising. It’s a combination of the Mediterranean diet, which stresses fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, berries, healthy oils and fish, and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which is designed to lower blood pressure.
“Stay away from sweets, fried foods, croissants and processed flour and sugar,” Kerwin says. “It’s not that difficult to follow, but look at the standard U.S. diet, which is based on carbohydrates and sugars. For people on the standard McDonald’s diet, it’s a big change to go into the MIND diet.”
U.S. News and World Report named MIND No. 5 in its list of all-around Best Diets. While eating the recommended foods cannot prevent Alzheimer’s, doing so may lower the risk of developing the degenerative disease.
In fact, Kerwin says, research has shown “the people who followed this reduced the risk of developing dementia by up to 50 percent.”
Keep your blood pressure in check
It’s astounding what a difference this can make. Research called the SPRINT MIND study showed that when blood pressure went below 120/80, “the onset of memory impairment was significantly reduced,” Kerwin says.
The outcome was so significant, she says, that the study was stopped so those in the control group would also start getting on blood pressure medication, thus also lowering their chance of developing dementia.
“If your blood pressure is even a little high,” Kerwin recommends, “talk to your doctor.”
Beware of products claiming to improve memory
We’ve all seen the commercials where the concerned consumer confers with her pharmacist, who assures her that yes, this pill can help her remember. Wrong.
“There is no truth to these claims,” Kerwin says. “There are no studies to confirm it reduces the symptoms, but you can say it does because it’s a supplement.”
Talk to your doctor about what supplements are right for YOU.
Move more, sit less
The word “exercise” seems to scare some people who think that only means running, and running a marathon at that. But exercise can mean walking for 30 minutes — all at once or divided into two or three sessions — every day. It can mean dancing, or swimming, or using the stairs more than you take the elevator.
Exercise has countless positive effects on us physically, mentally, emotionally.
“Diet and exercise will lower blood pressure, help the body clear certain toxins,” Kerwin says. “They can reduce inflammation and reduce blood pressure.”
Keep your mind engaged
Everyone tends to think crossword puzzles will save us all. But, Kerwin says, “what we’re saying is to engage in something that interests you; it will help the brain maintain connectivity. Engaging your brain will help it function in the long term. Sitting as a couch potato won’t be good for the brain to maintain function and connectivity.”
“Dehydration is a common cause of confusion in older patients,” Kerwin says. “When you increase hydration status, they seem more alert.”
Whether you’re free from the disease or you have a loved one who has Alzheimer’s, getting out of the house and into another environment is healthy. Go to the aquarium, the zoo, a museum.
“It’s an activity, it’s soothing, it’s a good activity for the brain,” she says. “Often people with dementia are isolated and their function starts to decline without that interaction.”
Kerwin is encouraged by research showing what can reduce risk. “What has surprised me,” she says, “is the magnitude of an effect these things have had. You can’t 100 percent prevent all of the risks and symptoms by healthy eating and exercise, but these all do have a big impact.”
For more information about Alzheimer’s and memory care, or to find a memory care specialist, visit TexasHealth.org/Health-and-Wellness/Neurosciences/Memory-Care.