For some of us, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can be more terrifying than news we have cancer. The disease leads to changes in the brain, said CHI Health Neuropsychologist Deborah Hoffnung, PhD, ABPP-CN. including dreaded cell death and tissue loss.
“This is particularly true of areas responsible for language and memory,” she said. “In Alzheimer’s disease, proteins in the brain seem to cluster and tangle, interfering with brain cells’ ability to communicate with one another.”
Is it possible to sidestep Alzheimer’s? Can lifestyle changes make a difference? You can certainly help reduce the risk with the right actions. Here are some things Dr. Hoffnung said you need to know about Alzheimer’s and your most powerful organ.
Lifestyle makes a difference. “Overall, it appears that lifestyle changes – exercise, nutrition and cognitive and social activity -- can help control for other conditions that affect the brain, probably making the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, if it does develop, less debilitating,” she said.
You can’t change your age or genetics, but you can manage other risks. “Managing blood pressure and exercising more are thought to reduce the risk of developing dementia,” she said.
Blood vessels are a big deal. Surprisingly, researchers who examined people’s brains after death found some with protein clusters and tangles characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease never actually showed signs of memory loss while they were living. But they also had fewer signs of cerebrovascular disease, or changes in the blood vessels of the brain caused by high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes, Dr. Hoffnung said.
“This suggests keeping these conditions under control and keeping blood vessels healthy may help to counteract the changes in the brain caused by Alzheimer’s disease,” she explained.
Exercise plays a big role as well. “It’s thought to directly benefit brain cells by increasing blood and oxygen flow in the brain,” according to Dr. Hoffnung. “Exercise also may increase the number of cell-to-cell connections and the amount of protein important to brain health.”
Heart-healthy and brain-healthy eating also may help protect the brain. Dr. Hoffnung pointed to a Rush University study that followed seniors over a five-year period to study the effects of a hybrid Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. They called it the “MIND” diet – Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.
“Those seniors who followed the MIND diet reduced their risk of developing Alzheimer’s by as much as 53%,” she said. “Those who didn’t follow it rigorously still reduced the disease as much as 35%.” Experts credited the foods in the MIND diet for improving blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood vessel health – and for possibly even helping prevent brain tissue loss. The foods included healthy fats, whole grains, omega 3s, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and fish.
“The Rush study reminds us that even small changes in diet, like eating more berries, whole grains and just one serving of fish a week can still help protect our brains from dementia,” Dr. Hoffnung pointed out.
You can apply the phrase “use it or lose it” to Alzheimer’s. “Cognitive activity like reading, brain games, writing emails and doing crossword puzzles does help to keep our brains healthy.”
Dr. Hoffnung pointed to research at the University of California – Berkeley that looked at brain scans of older volunteers without dementia. “Those who reported spending the most time each week engaged in mentally-demanding activities had the least amount of beta-amyloid buildup in their brains.” Beta-amyloid is the main component of the protein clusters that are found in the brain of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers also found people who reported engaging in more mentally-stimulating activities throughout their lives had brains that looked more like the brains of healthy volunteers in their 20s and 30s.
A good support network of family and friends may help. In a study of healthy older people, researchers found a relationship between more frequent social contact and better cognitive function. But keep in mind that “it’s not clear whether the people with less social activity might be less engaged because of their cognitive difficulties,” Dr. Hoffnung added. “In other words, less social engagement could be an early symptom of dementia and not its cause.”
There’s good news and bad news. First, the bad: by 2025, the number of people in the U.S. 65 and older with Alzheimer’s is estimated to reach 7.1 million; there’s no cure currently.
The good: certain medications may help lessen or stabilize symptoms for a limited time by affecting certain chemicals that help carry messages in the brain. Current research is focused on developing medical tests that can identify Alzheimer’s disease before symptoms even develop. Medications could then be used to slow or prevent changes in the brain.
“Research is also focused on developing medications that target the protein clusters and tangles that develop in Alzheimer’s, as well as reduce inflammation and cell death,” said Dr. Hoffnung.
It’s easy to learn more. “Your family doctor is a good place to start if you have concerns about your or a family member’s thinking and memory,” she said.
Other resources: the Alzheimer’s Association website at www.alz.org or the professionally-staffed 24/7 helpline at 1-800-272-3900. You can also find support and education through the Nebraska Alzheimer’s Chapter local meetings. You can also check out CHI Health's Alzheimer's information page, CHI Health Neuropsychology or CHI Health Neurosciences Care.