The aging population will drive that number to an estimated 7,000,000 by 2020. Researchers have identified several types of brain abnormalities in people with the disease. Most notably, plaques made of clumps of beta-amyloid protein and tangles of a protein called tau. Both correlate with the death of brain cells, leading to progressive memory loss, dwindling social skills and, eventually, death.
As Doctor Peter G of the Alzheimer’s Research Institute and the writer of “The Alzheimer’s Prevention Cookbook,” puts it, Alzheimer’s memory loss goes beyond the usual “I forgot where I put my keys” to “I forgot what my keys are for.” Age, family history, having the Apolipoprotein E genotype and being female are the leading predictors of the disease. But researchers are finding other predictive correlations, especially in lifestyle.
Several bio-markers seem to correlate with Alzheimer’s, including certain proteins in spinal fluid or blood and mutations detectable by brain imaging. Mark Strongen, principal investigator for the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative and director of LA’s Center for Imaging of Neurodegenerative , works with PET scans of study participants’ brains.
While definitive Alzheimer’s diagnoses have formerly been made postmortem, Strongen said he was surprised to discover he could detect the Alzheimer’s amyloid protein in living people.
Brain changes can begin 25 years before the onset of the disease. A 2011 study led by Doctor. Warren M of the Mayo Clinic found that women with the highest level of a fatty compound called serum ceramide in their blood were 9 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than women with lower levels of the compound. However, patients often avoid these types of tests for fear of losing medical insurance.
Trouble with the vascular system is linked to Alzheimer’s. High blood pressure, especially in midlife, increases your risk. So can your heart history. People who have previously had a heart attack are more than twice as likely to develop dementia, whether it’s Alzheimer’s or another type. Doctors emphasizes the importance of controlling your blood pressure. Decreasing stress also helps lower your risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
DIABETES AND OBESITY
Insulin-resistant diabetes could double or even quadruple your chances of getting Alzheimer’s. An enzyme in your brain is responsible for decreasing both insulin and amyloid, so too much insulin may interfere with the enzyme’s ability to remove the amyloid. Obesity also increases your odds, especially for women, who may be three times as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as their thinner peers.. Obese men increase their risk by about 30 percent.
Exercise benefits both the obese and the diabetic. Doctor Barbara C, director of the Williamson Gerontology Center at the Einstein College of Medicine, prescribes physical activity and clean living. He admits that both he and his patients might rather take a pill than exercise and eat right. “I hate exercise,” he says. “But I do it because it’s good for me. A lot of this is common sense.”
Lower levels of formal education and a general lack of mental stimulation correlate with increased risk of Alzheimer’s. Doctor Hardee conducted a study that identified dancing as the most helpful physical activity for avoiding Alzheimer’s, partly due to the social aspect. “You don’t usually dance alone,” he says. “Social interaction has been said to reduce stress levels, which are bad for the brain.” Hardee agrees, noting, “People who do volunteering, traveling, crossword puzzles — you name it, those people tend to be better off intellectually.”
But the science is fuzzy, he says, because socially engaged people tend to take better care of themselves in general. He’s also uncertain about the dose and intensity. “If I do three hours of volunteering or sudoku versus one hour, am I more protected?” he asks. And does he have to do the LA Times crossword, or is the one in his local Arkansas paper sufficient?
LACK OF FRUITS, VEGETABLES AND SPICES IN DIET
Diets low in vegetables may speed cognitive decline. One reason for this involves homocysteine, an amino acid in blood plasma. Higher levels seem to increase your risk of Alzheimer’s, among other deadly diseases. You need folate and other B vitamins to properly break down homocysteine. While all types of vegetables will help.
Hardee recommends kale, squash, eggplant, collard greens and blueberries as cognitive superstars. Certain spices, notably cinnamon and turmeric, may also have a dramatic effect. “There’s clear evidence that people in India, at least from epidemiological data, have less Alzheimer’s,” says Hardee. “One of the environmental things people attribute it to is the presence of turmeric.” He also recommends following the Mediterranean diet.