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Minding Our Second-Favorite Organ

There has been enormous attention of late to the grim and genuinely frightening problem of Alzheimer's disease. The problem is grim by its very nature -- there is little we contemplate with greater dread than the loss of our minds, our very selves.
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As a preventive medicine physician who truly believes "if you don't have your health, you don't have anything," our prevailing behaviors have always been hard to fathom.

The parent who simply can't find time to cook a family dinner can, always, find time to take a kid to the ER or endocrinologist. People who can't afford mixed greens can afford diabetes test strips.

People who carefully and responsibly invest in the financial security of their retirement (although we know that's no guarantee of a good outcome!) routinely neglect altogether any investment in their health. If money can be put aside for future benefit, why can't time be "put aside" -- invested in physical activity, eating well, getting enough sleep? It can be, of course -- but our social norms don't encourage it, and it doesn't happen. A standard-issue, responsible modern adult -- carefully tends their money, and neglects their health. It's normal, and almost expected. But bizarre -- and often calamitously costly.

Many people reach retirement with the money they need, lacking the health they need to use that money for anything enjoyable. As a physician, it is excruciatingly painful to look into the imploring eyes of a retiree who has long anticipated their golden years -- and has cultivated the bank account to underwrite it -- now disabled by progressive diabetes, lung disease, brain disease or heart disease that need not have occurred.

And it is all too common. I have seen, and continue to see, many such patients. Patients who reach retirement age with robust good health and too few dollars come along, too, of course -- but far less often. And here's the news flash: Those with health but not much money are clearly a happier group than those with money but not much health. I have met them on the intimate turf of clinical care, and they have told me so.

This is the backstory for a careful consideration of the Alzheimer's disease crisis we now face.

There has been enormous attention of late to the grim and genuinely frightening problem of Alzheimer's disease. The problem is grim by its very nature -- there is little we contemplate with greater dread than the loss of our minds, our very selves. The problem is frightening at the personal level because we feel vulnerable to this increasingly common condition we don't know how to cure, and at the collective level, where estimates suggest it could cost the nation a trillion dollars annually by 2050. There is also the terrible burden on family members, who must face the high demands of care, compounded by the heart-wrenching loss of a loved one who is still there, yet already gone.

It is in this context that President Obama has declared a war of sorts on this scourge, calling for means of both prevention and treatment by 2025, or even 2020. There is lively debate about how realistic the goal is -- although on that issue, I note that the best way to predict the future is to create it. You don't get to the moon without committing to the trip.

To create the president's future, it will be important to develop new treatments, as it is for obesity and diabetes. But as with obesity and diabetes, it will be important not to let the hunt for breakthrough treatments become the tail that wags the dog.

Alzheimer's is overwhelmingly a vascular disease, and thus overwhelmingly preventable. Estimates are less well established than for other chronic diseases, but it seems likely the risk can be trimmed by nearly 80 percent -- and perhaps eliminated entirely but for the extremely genetically vulnerable -- by minding our general health.

It is only fair and honest to concede that we do not have perfect defenses against Alzheimer's. And, to some extent, we are hoisted on our own petard -- vulnerable to this condition of advancing age because we are better at living longer than ever before.

But the evidence is strong, if not incontrovertible, that whatever the genetic underpinnings, the epigenetics of Alzheimer's -- the exposures that influence how genes behave -- are of profound importance. By and large, Alzheimer's is a vascular disease. By and large, the practices that prevent cardiovascular disease -- eating well, being active, avoiding tobacco -- slash the risk of Alzheimer's.

Study after study after study after study that has shown an elimination of up to 80 percent of all chronic disease with the application of lifestyle as medicine has NOT carved out an exception for Alzheimer's. The evidence that we can alter gene expression with the power of lifestyle almost certainly pertains to Alzheimer's as it does to cancer. By minding our bodies, we can mind our minds, too. We can best mind both, by minding the short list of what matters most to health.

Available evidence suggests that controlling cardiac risk factors can lower dementia risk specifically by 50 percent or more.

So see a doctor at regular intervals to have your blood pressure and cholesterol monitored. High cholesterol can contribute to dementia by accelerating the development of atherosclerosis; controlling blood lipid levels with diet or medication can protect against this. High blood pressure can damage the blood supply to the brain in several ways, and is the leading risk factor for stroke. At least one European study suggests that treatment of high blood pressure all by itself can cut dementia risk in half.

While the scientific evidence linking cigarettes to dementia per se is equivocal, the link between smoking and vascular disease is clear and strong. So avoid tobacco to protect your brain by protecting the blood vessels that nourish it.

There is some evidence to support what most of us have heard about "brain foods." Fish consumption appears to protect brain function, most likely by contributing omega-3 fatty acids to the diet. An omega-3 oil supplement, one to two grams daily, is an alternative. Antioxidants in food appear to be protective as well, contributing to the reputations of blueberries, red wine and green tea.

But while an inventory of potential brain foods can be assembled, the evidence is much stronger for the importance of the overall dietary pattern. Eating well is as important to the brain as it is to the heart. Lower your risk of Alzheimer's with plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, beans and lentils, olives and avocado, nuts and seeds. Limit consumption of highly-processed foods, fast foods, sugar, salt, saturated and trans fat. Physical activity, too, nurtures the health of body and mind alike.

There is some evidence that poorly controlled stress, lack of sleep and various nutrient deficiencies -- vitamin E, vitamin C, and vitamins B12 and B6 in particular -- may increase the risk of dementia. Controlling stress, getting adequate sleep and a balanced diet with or without supplements may all confer protection.

Finally, population studies consistently suggest that those who exercise their brains protect their minds from dementia. Crossword puzzles and Sudoku are aerobics for your brain. Just as physical activity defends the body against aging and infirmity, mental activity seems to help preserve the vitality of the brain. The Mayo Clinic and the Alzheimer's Foundation, among others, provide nice summaries of prevention strategies online.

As we mind our mind by minding our bodies, we can mind our business into the bargain. The price tag of Alzheimer's -- and chronic disease in general -- threatens nothing less than our national solvency. Only prevention can solve that problem. A breakthrough drug for Alzheimer's would be wonderful -- but who is naïve enough to think the drug would be dispensed for free? Serious chronic disease is bad financial news when we can't treat it, and still bad financial news when we can! The financial news turns to the good only with prevention. Lifestyle is not only the best medicine we have -- it is the only medicine we have already available to all, at essentially no extra cost, and without a prescription.

A healthy brain needs clear arteries, a sound heart, clear lungs, fit kidneys, a robust liver. Even if your brain is your second-favorite organ, you can tend it best by looking after all the other less-favored organs on which it is co-dependent.

Altogether too many of our loved ones have Alzheimer's already; and too many more will get it. There is no question we need the government, and big Pharma, and the biomedical community at large to wage the battle of treatment on our behalf.

But prevention is the greater prize in the long run -- and is largely already within our grasp. There is no need to wait for the government, or big Pharma. Take matters into your own hands. Mind your mind and mind your body with the zeal and diligence you routinely apply to minding your own business. Because, they are.


For more by David Katz, M.D., click here.

For more on Alzheimer's, click here.