The following is a guest blog by Martha Stettinius.
In 2005, at age 40, I became the main caregiver for my mother, Judy, who could no longer balance her checkbook, cook, or clean. I encouraged her to move from her remote lakeside cottage into my small home with my husband and two children. Since then she has lived in assisted living, a ÛÏmemory careÛ facility for people with dementia, and now a nursing home.åÊ
As I watch my motherÛªs health deteriorate with AlzheimerÛªs disease, IÛªve become more determined to protect my own. But what can we do to avoid dementia when scientists have found no proven means of prevention, no treatment, and no cure?
We do know that scientists agree on certain risk factors. They include old age; a family history; serious head trauma; poor cardiovascular health; high blood pressure; stroke (including small strokes that are barely noticeable); diabetes; high cholesterol; obesity in middle age; a low education level (which predisposes someone to less learning and brain development over their lifetime); and smoking.
A lesser-known risk factor for dementia is interrupted sleep, such as from obstructive sleep apnea. If you snore, or you feel tired or headachy in the morning, consider getting a referral to a sleep clinic. Research shows that elderly women who have sleep apnea are about twice as likely to develop dementia as those without the condition. People whose nightly sleep is short or disturbed have higher levels of beta amyloid, the protein that causes plaques between brain cells and is widely believed to play a large role in the development of AlzheimerÛªs disease. I am being treated for sleep apnea, and I suspect from her snoring that my mother has always had it. According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, sleep apnea is as common as Type II diabetes.
åÊA research study also found a connection between AlzheimerÛªs disease and vision. In a study of elderly people over the age of 71, all of whom had normal cognitive functioning at the beginning of the study, those who had undiagnosed or untreated vision problems showed a 9.5-fold increase in the risk of developing AlzheimerÛªs disease.
åÊSome researchers say that exercise may be our most powerful antidote for AlzheimerÛªs disease. Because aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the brain, stimulates the growth of new brain cells, and decreases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes, the AlzheimerÛªs Association recommends thirty minutes of daily exercise. A recent study shows that daily activity of all kindsÛÓfrom formal exercise to activities such as washing dishes, cleaning, and cookingÛÓmay reduce the risk of developing AlzheimerÛªs disease, even in people over age 80. People who walk forty minutes a day for a year regain volume in their hippocampus, reversing brain shrinkage. People with mild cognitive impairment who do resistance weight training two times a week over six months show an increase in their memory and executive function (the ability to multi-task).
Social activity and mental stimulation are also crucial. Sports, cultural activities, emotional support, and close personal relationships are all key. We should work as long as we can, volunteer, join social clubs, and travel. We should turn off the television, read, write, do crosswords and puzzles. Play games, learn a new language, or learn to play an instrument. In fact, if we challenge ourselves regularly, our brains will continue to create new cells and connections.
As far as diet is concerned, AlzheimerÛªs disease has been called ÛÏType III Diabetes,Û because of the link between diabetes and pre-diabetes (slightly high blood sugar and ÛÏinsulin resistanceÛ) and a higher risk of dementia. I am pre-diabetic and insulin-resistant, and someone like me is 70% more likely than someone with normal blood sugar and insulin levels to develop AlzheimerÛªs disease. While twenty million people in the United States have Type II diabetes, twice that number are insulin resistant and pre-diabetic.
There is some evidence that a low-carb diet, which lowers the blood sugar and insulin levels in your brain, may help protect your neurons. I have been eating a ÛÏPaleo,Û low-carb diet for a year now. Mainstream views of diet and dementia, however, recommend a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet, with the caveat that HDL, or ÛÏgoodÛ cholesterol, may help protect brain cells. The AlzheimerÛªs Association recommends lots of dark vegetables and fruits that are high in antioxidants; mono- or polyunsaturated fats such as olive oil, cold water fish high in Omega 3Ûªs (salmon, tuna, mackerel); and nuts such as almonds, pecans, and walnuts. Vitamin E, or vitamin E and C together, vitamin B12, and folate may also decrease the risk of AlzheimerÛªs.
There are no guarantees, of course, but if we pay attention to these recent studies (and press our federal government for more dementia research) we may find a way to win the war.
Martha Stettinius is the author of the new book Inside the Dementia Epidemic: A DaughterÛªs Memoir. Inside the Dementia Epidemicis available on Amazon and BN.com. For more information, visitåÊwww.insidedementia.comor www.facebook/insidedementia.åÊ
To contact Martha, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.