Three recent stories about brain health and dementia spotlight a frequent conundrum in the world of health: sometimes pills just don’t have the answers.
In an eye-opening March report, the Alzheimer’s Association claimed that one in three adults over 65 will die while suffering from dementia – Alzheimer’s Disease in its most pernicious form. (The report does not say older adults will die from the effects of dementia – only that they will have some form of dementia when they die.)
Another study, by the RAND Corporation, tallied the annual costs of dementia at between $157 billion and $215 billion – more than heart disease or cancer.
The FDA also recently announced it wanted to simplify approvals for drugs that attack the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s, hoping to slow progression of the insidious disease that affects mental clarity and physical agility.
So it’s no wonder that the burning question for Americans in middle age and older is this: How do I avoid Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia?
I recently asked several aging experts what they recommend to others – and what they do themselves – to mitigate the possible effects of dementia.
While the answer doesn’t come in a pill, it’s still quite simple.
Not just physically, but in every part of your life: socially, intellectually, and emotionally. Study French. Take a yoga class. Read a self-improvement book. Spend time with your friends. Learn an instrument. Push yourself. Change directions. Grow.
As a single unit, the body and brain function together, so keeping the body in tiptop condition is crucial to brain health, experts say.
Fine-tuning the blood vessels to minimize disorders related to vascular health – diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure – is critical to brain health, says Margaret Gatz, who chairs USC’s department of psychology.
Injuries due to falls – especially head trauma – should particularly be avoided, says Dr. George Martin, former head of the University of Washington Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.
“Physical exercise is by far the most important risk-lowering activity, for many reasons” says Judith Horstman, author of last year’s “The Scientific American Healthy Aging Brain.” Chief among these reasons, she says, is that heart health is “tightly connected to brain health. What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.
Others agree that exercise can slow the progression of dementia – some citing in particular long-time runners.
“They seem to remember that they were faster than they actually were,” jokes Adam Chase, trail and gear editor for Running Times magazine. “But otherwise I’d say no, I can’t think of any cases of dementia or Alzheimer’s in my older running friends.”
The modern enemy of exercise? The computer screen.
Michael Merzenich, a pioneer in brain plasticity research, says not only should we be exercising, but avoiding the computer screen or anything else that keeps us physically inert.
“Avoid technology that does your thinking for you.”
Experts also recommend eating a healthy diet: hearty portions of fruits and vegetables, increasing healthy fats – fish, avocados, and nuts – while reducing animal fats and salt.
Like many, Michelle Johnston, regional director of the Alzheimer’s Association
northern California and northern Nevada chapters, follow the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes plant-based meals flavored by herbs instead of salt, olive oil over butter, and red meat eaten only sparingly.
In “The Alzheimer’s Prevention Cookbook” – a heady mix of colorful recipes and easily-digested science – Dr. Marwan Sabbagh cites the critical role of diet in India’s surprisingly low rates of Alzheimer’s.
The secret ingredient: curcumin, found in the spice turmeric, which gives Indian curry its yellow tinge.
“Eating spicy Indian curry once or twice a week could help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia,” states Sabbagh.
Scientific studies have shown that loneliness and social isolation can increase the risk of physical and mental illness ranging from depression to hypertension and diabetes.
“I like to say that ‘the brain loves company,’ and that (people) who stay socially- engaged may get Alzheimer’s later in life,” says David Troxel, pioneer of the Best Friends Approach to Alzheimer’s.
Equally important as good company is exercising the brain itself.
“Some skeptics would argue that doing crossword puzzles will make you good at doing crossword puzzles, but will not guarantee advances in other cognitive domains,” says Martin.
Merzenich, founder of San Francisco-based brain fitness giant PositScience, says the difference between games and exercises is simple.
True exercises “drive brains in corrective directions,” says Merzenich, while simple brain games don’t.
“Medicine Hunter” Chris Kilham, who has studied traditional medicines in over 30 countries, takes a strictly natural approach.
“To reduce risk of dementia, I drink plenty of clean organic coffee, which demonstrates very high activity in reducing risk of all forms of dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,” says Kilham, a frequent guest on the Dr. Oz show.
Besides meditation and yoga, Kilham also takes a variety of what he calls “brain-active herbs” including Rhodiola rosea, curcurmin, schisandra berry, eleuthero and panax ginseng.
In summary, Merzenich says that the brain flourishes the same way as any person.
“Because of the way that it is – or is not – engaged in life.”