Alzheimer's Disease: How to Reduce Your Risk

One of my first jobs, as a psychologist in training, was working with the elderly population who had Alzheimer's Disease (AD). My grandmother, who was my twin soul, also suffered from AD and I saw first-hand, professionally and personally, how devastating Alzheimer's Disease is. It’s like dying a slow death. So, I wanted to know, why it happens and what we can do to reduce the risk.

Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is an age related degenerative, irreversible brain disorder and is the leading cause of dementia in elders and accounts for 60 to 80 percent of all dementia cases. Dementia is a general term for a condition in which brain cells gradually degenerate. Different diseases can also cause dementia, such as: Huntington Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, HIV, and traumatic brain injury. AD is the most common. It is characterized by cognitive and functional decline due to the abnormal accumulation of β-amyloid plaques and tau tangles in the brain.

An estimated 5.3 million Americans suffer from AD. Studies show an estimated 26.6 million people worldwide are currently afflicted with the disease, and by 2050, it is estimated that this number will quadruple to approximately 106 million, with 1 in 85 people suffering from it.

AD patients demonstrate temporally based impairments in executive functioning, which results from small blood vessel damage. This dysfunction is thought to be caused by white-matter damage that interferes with communication between the frontal lobes and rest of the brain, resulting in frontal lobe abnormalities. This means, there are researchers who have concluded that white-matter damage alone is sufficient in the disruption of temporal order memory, which is probably why those with AD are good with memories from the distant past but not so good with recent recall.

You have increased risk for AD if you have had a stroke, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, elevated pulse, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, and diabetes. Moreover, those with lifelong depression and anxiety have increased risk of developing AD because depression and anxiety produce chemicals in the body that influence receptor neuro-transmission in the forebrain. There is also a correlation between AD and premorbid personality (before the onset of the disease), such as neuroticism, mood, and aggression.

Most cases of Alzheimer's Disease are sporadic and not genetically inherited; however, genes may act as risk factors. But only about .1 percent of the cases are genetically inherited. What does this mean? It means that if you have a close biological relative (such as parent or grandparent), you have a chance of suffering from AD; however, if you take precautions against the disease, you reduce your risk of being afflicted with AD. In other words, AD is not necessarily passed on through genes.

Suggestions for prevention that may reduce the risk for AD include: cognitive engagement (read books, do crossword puzzles, take classes), physical activity (bike ride, walk, hike), relaxation techniques (learn meditation, guided imagery, do yoga), and nutrition. The most compelling evidence for prevention of Alzheimer’s is controlling vascular risk factors, especially hypertension because hypertension is the factor most associated with developing AD.

Researchers also found that lifestyle may prevent the risk for AD, such as high level of physical activity, educational attainment, and dietary factors such as a Mediterranean diet or intake of antioxidants, polyunsaturated fatty acids, cereals, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acid.

Medications that have been used to treat AD include donepezil and galantamine, which treat mild-to-moderate AD, but only show modest efficacy for reducing cognitive and behavioral symptoms. Eli Lily and Pfizer, Elan, and Johnson & Johnson have developed medication that seek to clear the brain of AB plaque but are still waiting for clearance.

However, more research must be conducted with regards to AD prevention and treatment; yet, as of now, the best way to reduce your risk for AD is to maintain body, mind, and energy well-being, and incorporate a healthy diet (such as Mediterranean), cognitive and physical exercise, and be aware of your cerebrovascular health to slow disease onset and progression.

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