Saturday, February 18th, 2012
by Ellen Woodward Potts
co-author, A Pocket Guide for the Alzheimer’s Caregiver
There are certain things you can’t change about yourself, and some of these put your at greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Old age is the most obvious one. While you can lie about your age, you can’t change it. Females are more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease, and make up nearly two-thirds of its victims. You can’t change your gender, at least genetically. Being African-American or Hispanic puts you at higher risk. You can’t change your race.
So what can you change that will improve your chances of avoiding this awful disease? As with so many things in this world, it’s all about lifestyle choices. You can decrease your risk by about 50%, perhaps more, if you will live your life in a way that is healthy for your body, mind and spirit.
The benefits of exercise for your heart are well-known and well-publicized, but did you know that what is healthy for your heart is also healthy for your brain? Exercising 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, is the best thing you can do for your brain. However, even exercising 10 minutes a day reduces your risk significantly. Think about simple ways to incorporate exercise into your life — park your car farther from the door, take the stairs instead of the elevator, spend part of your lunch break walking. Be creative. Optimally, the 30 minutes would be all at once, but meaningful benefits occur from spreading the 30 minutes of exercise into smaller increments throughout the day.
Eating right is another big factor. Many studies show that people who follow the Mediterranean Diet (lots of fish and seafood, lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, low fat, low carb, low sugar, red wine in moderation) have a much lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. I live in the South and we tend to do the opposite. We fry our high fat meat, put fatback in the beans, and boil vegetables until they are gray. Did I mention our deep and abiding love for fast food and high sugar soft drinks? When you think about healthy eating, think about fish and low fat meats that are grilled, baked or broiled rather than fried. Also, think about colorful fruits and vegetables — sweet potatoes, blueberries, oranges, spinach, tomatoes, carrots, etc. — that are as close to their natural state as possible. Unfortunately for my family, Cheetos don’t count as healthy color. Did you know your brain is about 75% water? Drink water all day and substitute it for soft drinks and sweet tea. There are lots of studies showing that children who drink lots of water perform better on tests. Water is good for adults, too!
Exercise your brain, challenge it, learn new things. People who continue to challenge themselves mentally create something called “cognitive reserve.” This means, the more you exercise your brain, the more connections your brain will form, and the more difficult it will be for something like Alzheimer’s to damage your brain to the point that it affects your daily living. Working crossword puzzles, playing a musical instrument (or learning to play one), learning a foreign language, reading challenging material — all these are ways to exercise your brain. Activities that exercise your brain AND your body — square dancing, Zumba classes, ballroom dancing, line dancing, etc. — are especially good for you!
Those who take care of their spiritual selves lower their risk. Also, managing your stress level and keeping depression out of your life is good for your brain. Staying socially active and engaged is vitally important to maintaining brain health. Do you get enough sleep? People who typically get a good night’s sleep are at lower risk.
Lots of studies have been published lately about the link between Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Keeping your blood sugar at healthy levels is very important. Not only will uncontrolled diabetes put you at higher risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease, but also it will put you at higher risk of things like stroke and heart attack. Both of these can cause dementia aside from Alzheimer’s disease.
While nothing can eliminate your risk of Alzheimer’s disease completely, your choices can make it much less likely. If you make the choices above a mainstay of your everyday life, you will not only reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, you’ll also feel better, and be happier and healthier.