The Alzheimer's Association's newly-released report on Alzheimer's Disease is a call-to-action for Americans to redouble our efforts to prevent and fight this progressive, and ultimately fatal, brain disease.
The report cites some alarming statistics:
- One in three seniors dies from Alzheimer's or another dementia;
- The number of people age 65 and older with the disease is expected to grow from 5.1 million to 7.1 million in the next ten years.
- Caring for those with Alzheimer's will cost an estimated $226 billion this year, rising to $1.1 trillion by 2050.
These are grim facts, indeed, but they do not tell the whole story. There is good reason to hope the trajectory of disease--and billions of dollars spent fighting it-- will not be endlessly upward. We are discovering more and more about the tremendous resilience-building and regenerative-capacity of the brain, giving us reason to hope that Baby Boomers and future generations will not suffer to the same extent as current seniors.
I will always be grateful to Dave Fox, who forever changed my perspective on Alzheimer's. Dave came to me shortly after being diagnosed and asked for my help. I told him Alzheimer's is a progressive brain disease, and there was nothing we could do to help him beyond the available medication that had only minimal impact on the disease. He countered that since his brain was still working, there must be something we could do.
From that moment, instead of viewing the Alzheimer's diagnosis as hopeless, I began to focus on what we can do, to help stimulate cognition and maintain a patient's quality of life for as long as possible, much like we do with other brain insults such as stroke. We worked with Dave for several years, helping him achieve daily goals and continue to contribute in meaningful ways to his family and work in the midst of his growing memory deficits.
While there is no cure for Alzheimer's, some have estimated we could reduce its prevalence by 50 percent by focusing on lifestyle changes and reducing major risk factors. This achievement requires rapid dissemination of new discoveries to the public and ramping up adoption of healthy brain habits - sooner than later. That is why it is so important not only to detect and diagnose the illness as early as possible, but also to invest in our brains' health long before the disease symptoms disrupt everyday life activities. This big vision to reduce disease prevalence NOW will necessitate us taking a lifespan approach to brain health by teaching younger generations how to build up their cognitive reserves. The more brain reserves a person builds by starting earlier and keeping up healthy practices, the further out the symptoms will be pushed - compressing the length of life a person lives with profound cognitive impairments.
At the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas, we are conducting research to identify people in the preclinical phases of Alzheimer's--known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI)--by characterizing markers in the brain that are related to memory deficits. Ultimately such markers will help clinicians decide on proper treatments and may also lead to an objective assessment of how the brain is responding to treatments. In preliminary randomized trials, we are showing regained cognitive performance and better brain responses.
In the absence of a cure, what can we do to reduce our risk for Alzheimer's?
There are brain healthy habits anyone can employ at any stage of life to strengthen brain systems and enhance cognitive performance.
Delve into deeper level thinking: Instead of being bogged down in details and minutiae, give information new meaning by synthesizing it and relating it to your own experiences. Achieving a new perspective will inspire your brain to generate new ideas and solutions.
Slow down to succeed: Working constantly without taking time to step back and reflect on actions hinders productivity and performance along with increasing stress. While it seems counterintuitive to increase mental energy by slowing the pace, try it; it works. Give weighty decisions and projects the time, reflection and contemplation they need.
Block out: Consciously filtering extraneous information to focus on the task at hand as not only been shown to impact cognitive health but is also a sign of higher intellectual function.
It may come as a surprise, but our current daily lifestyle habits, even some we believe are good for our brain such as multitasking, are toxic to good brain health and require concerted change throughout life:
Getting a good's night sleep: Eight hours is optimal to reset an exhausted brain engine and to consolidate learning of new information at higher-levels of understanding.
Participating in aerobic physical activity: Exercise is one of the most important ways to increase blood flow to the areas of the brain crucial to memory and attention. In a recent study, our researchers found that an hour of aerobic exercise three times a week significantly improved both immediate and delayed memory function of older adults from ages 57 - 75 within 12 weeks. Delayed memory (recalling a name or phone number 30 minutes later) is one of the key early telltale signs of Alzheimer's.
Eating right: A diet rich in vegetables, fruit, nuts, fish, legumes, and olive oil with decreased intake of red meat, dairy products and sweets reduces vascular disease which is a major contributing factor to accumulating cognitive losses in healthy aging and dementia.
Staying socially connected: Higher socialization and strong social networks are positively related to higher cognitive performance.
By learning more about the tremendous power within our brain, how it can adapt, regenerate and guard against cognitive decline, I am confident we will one day be able to reduce incidence, slow progression, and eventually prevent dementia through combined therapeutic protocols. Let's continue to work together to make the Alzheimer's Association's vision, "a world without Alzheimer's," a reality.