Have you had one of those moments? You forget a name, can't find a folder you had just a minute before, or go into a room and blank on what you needed? For many boomers, these little memory lapses lead to larger worries -- are we losing our minds, not just our keys?
For most of us these moments of forgetfulness are minor and do not signify anything more than being too distracted, too tired, or too rusty in our thinking. Yet often we are left wondering: What if this is the beginning of Alzheimer's? Maybe there is something I should do?
Can we prevent Alzheimer's disease? It would be tremendous if we could. Alzheimer's disease affects 1 in 8 Americans over age 65 and is the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S. (the only one on that list with no effective cure or treatment to slow progression). Besides the incalculable suffering brought by the disease, the economic drain is hugely burdensome, with an estimated cost in 2012 of $200 billion dollars alone.
While the research on prevention of memory disorders is young, much of the data suggests several clear steps we can take to alter our lifestyle that have the potential to lower our risk for serious memory loss. While it may take years to know for certain the value of these interventions, they are on the whole known to be better for our health, and carry little risk overall.
Want to know what you might be able to do to prevent Alzheimer's? Here are three things the science suggests you can do right now that may reduce your chances of developing the disease:
Get Moving. Multiple studies have underscored the benefit of regular physical activity for overall brain health and dementia risk. Studies have found that aerobic exercise sharpens daily performance, improves brain function, and reduces risk for memory impairment over our lifetime. In fact, findings on physical activity are the strongest and most consistent across the board (suggesting cross-training may do more for your brain than crossword puzzles). How much exercise do you need to get? Much of the research suggests that any consistent aerobic activity, even simply taking a well-paced walk for 45 minutes a day several days a week, can make a difference in your dementia risk. In addition, informal activity through things like walking to work or doing household chores can help. Researchers at Rush University in Chicago recently reported that all physical activity, including non-exercise activity, reduced rate of global cognitive decline in a sample of older subjects followed over a four-year period.
Mind Your Metabolic Reserve. While I am often asked whether there is a special diet we can follow to lower dementia risk, few of my clients are aware that what we weigh- and where we carry that weight - may in fact matter more than what we eat. Obesity increases our risk for Type II Diabetes and hypertension, both of which have long been associated with higher rates of stroke-related types of dementia. Recently scientists have turned their attention to the possible relationship between body mass and Alzheimer's risk. Studies have shown that individuals who are obese or even merely overweight and carry that weight in their midsection (the much hated "belly fat") are significantly more vulnerable to dementia in later life. Leading researchers in the field now propose a model of "metabolic reserve," suggesting that a lifestyle that reduces risk for metabolic syndrome (long associated with increased cardiac disease risk) and supports efficient metabolic function may help stave off cognitive decline. These findings integrate what we know about leading a brain healthy lifestyle, including healthy dietary choices, into a theoretical framework for understanding the protective benefits such factors may play in lowering dementia risk.
Get Engaged. Our final way to ward off Alzheimer's disease is one that doubles as a prescription to a vital and meaningful life. Studies suggest that one of the best ways we can protect our brains is by staying engaged. Intellectual engagement has been found to not only lower our Alzheimer's risk but may even delay the onset of symptoms if we develop the disease. Such activities may build cognitive reserve, providing us with more of a "cushion" in the face of neuro-degeneration. Additional studies have shown that staying socially engaged can also be helpful, which may be in part due to the intellectual challenges that come with staying social. Finally, there have been several small but thought-provoking studies showing that meditation or having a sense of purpose in life may be linked to lower dementia risk, suggesting that our emotional health may matter to our long-term brain health as well.