Imagine the postal carrier delivers a package to your home. Inside you find a beautiful crystal heart and a note. With excitement you open the card to see who sent this beautiful gift. Although the handwriting is impeccable, you have difficulty reading it. The card is signed “Love, Betty,” but you do not know who Betty is. You feel sad and overwhelmed that you do not know who Betty is. As you look up from the card, you see the name “Betty” written on the emergency contact form hanging on your fridge. Tears begin to fall as you realize Betty is your sister. This is an all-too-familiar scenario that plays out each day for a person on the journey with dementia.
Dementia is the umbrella term that describes a variety of diseases characterized by decline in memory, changes in behavior, and inability to think clearly. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. Vascular dementia, Lewy body disease, and Huntington’s disease are other types of dementia.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s every 65 seconds. By 2050, someone in the United States will develop the disease every 33 seconds. Beyond the statistics, the toll that dementia takes on the person and their family and friends is devastating.
If you have a family member who has developed dementia, it may leave you wondering if there is anything that can be done to help prevent this group of diseases. The brain is a remarkably complex organ; therefore, it has been difficult to find a cause or cure for dementia. Huntington’s disease is the only form of dementia that appears to be caused by a single defective gene. In the other forms of dementia, genes seem to play only a small role in our possibility of developing it. According to Glenn E. Smith, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist with the Mayo Clinic, there are three major genes known to cause dementia, but these three genes are present in less than 5 percent of all dementia cases. So instead of worrying about your genes, look to your lifestyle to find ways to protect and preserve your brain health.
How to Protect Your Brain Against Alzheimer’s
Get rest and peace.
Your overall brain health is connected to a number of conditions. For example, many people are surprised to learn that anxiety, depression, and poor sleep patterns increase the risk for developing dementia. It is normal to experience moments of anxiety and times of sadness; however, when anxiety and depression are left untreated, they become additional factors that may adversely impact brain health. Findings published in the Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine report anxiety as a risk factor for the development of dementia. Likewise, findings published in the Journal of Gerontology reported late-life depression consistently and significantly increases risk for dementia. Finally, an increasing number of studies have linked poor sleep to higher levels of beta-amyloid, the sticky protein found in higher concentrations of brains with dementia.
Eliminate toxic risks.
There are certain lifestyle choices and environmental risks that contribute to poor brain health, including smoking, exposure to secondhand smoke, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, use of recreational drugs, improper use of prescription medications, and exposure to pesticides and poor air quality. Consider these facts:
• A healthy brain relies on healthy blood flow. Nicotine restricts blood flow in the arteries, thus decreasing healthy circulation to the brain. Alcohol slows and impairs brain function, even with moderate use. And long-term alcohol use can lead to permanent changes in balance, memory, emotional regulation, and coordination.
• People are aware of the harmful effects of illicit drugs, but prescription and over-the-counter medications can also have short- and long-term impacts on brain health. Consult with your health-care professional regarding your prescription medications and their benefits, as well as risks to your brain health.
• A study of people in the agricultural community of Cache County, Utah, concluded that pesticide exposure may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia later in life.
• The Nurses’ Health Study, which has been following over 19,000 women, published findings in the Archives of Internal Medicine that long-term exposure to higher levels of air pollution was associated with significantly faster cognitive decline.
It is difficult to establish a direct link between specific toxins and conditions such as Alzheimer’s because so many factors are involved. However, these studies highlight the potential benefits of clean living (e.g., eating organic food, eliminating the use of pesticides in the home and garden, and avoiding nicotine and tobacco smoke).
Form healthy habits now.
Exercise and a healthy diet have been shown to improve the brain’s ability to protect itself. Richard S. Isaacson, M.D., director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine, recommends a brain-healthy diet that is low in saturated fat and high in nutrient-dense foods, including leafy green vegetables, berries, turmeric, and nuts.
Last but not least, is the benefit of exercise. The Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation reports that regular physical exercise can reduce your risk for Alzheimer’s by 50 percent.
With so many possible risk and protective factors, where should you begin? Begin where you are now. Make one small change at a time. Take the stairs rather than the elevator. Eat a salad. Get an additional hour of sleep each night. Small changes today will lead to a healthy brain tomorrow.
Beatrice Tauber Prior, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist, author, and owner of Harborside Wellbeing in North Carolina. Her work with families on the journey with a progressive illness inspired her to publish children’s books, including Grandma and Me: A Kid’s Guide for Alzheimer’s & Dementia.