Thanks to celebrities like Glen Campbell willing to tell their stories, many more people are now familiar with Alzheimer's -- the deadly disease that slowly robs a person's memory and ability to perform everyday activities. This increased attention is welcomed, given what we do and do not know about Alzheimer's.
What we know:
There are a handful of drugs that help to manage Alzheimer's by boosting certain neurotransmitters in the brain. However, at this time, nothing can stop the disease's progression or reverse the devastating effects.
Alzheimer's can start to develop in the brain up to 20 years before someone begins to show symptoms.
Scientific advancements continue. Just last month, neuroscientists at Massachusetts General Hospital announced an amazing breakthrough they call "Alzheimer's in a Dish," as they were able to grow human brain cells that develop the structures of Alzheimer's disease in a petri dish. The discovery means researchers will be able to test thousands of drugs in months instead of years -- speeding up the process of finding additional treatments.
But there is one thing we don't know: a definitive cure for Alzheimer's disease.
This single fact is the reason why every 67 seconds in this country, someone is diagnosed with the disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association. And unless a cure is found, that number will jump to every 33 seconds by the year 2050.
More research is needed before scientific experts can definitively say that preventive strategies are useful. Yet there are things we can all do right now to promote healthy brain aging that may even reduce the risk factors for developing Alzheimer's:
1. Eat a brain-healthy diet. Quite simply, a healthy diet can promote healthier brain functioning. According to the Alzheimer's Association, we should maintain a healthy weight, eat a diet low in saturated fat and include dark-skinned fruits and vegetables, such as kale and blueberries. Cold water fish and some nuts are good options, too. Try to limit or avoid snacks and foods with high sugar content, as research shows eating sugary snacks and soda may reduce brain function. With the holiday season in full swing, keep these tips in mind while preparing meals.
2. Make exercise a regular part of your day. In addition to increasing our sense of well-being and reducing stress, there are countless benefits to exercise, such as reducing depression and giving your cardiovascular system a good workout. The brain also benefits tremendously from exercise. With each heartbeat, our brains receive up to 20 percent of the blood flow, which brings oxygen and other nutrients to keep it going at an optimal level.
Studies have shown that the brains of older women with mild cognitive impairment who exercise regularly showed an increase in the size of their hippocampus, the part of the brain that acts as a filing system for new information or the place where new memories begin to form. Since those with mild cognitive impairment are at an increased risk for developing Alzheimer's disease, this makes a great case for taking a vigorous walk daily. So remember, heart health equals brain health!
3. Manage your stress. In biology class, we all learned about the fight-or-flight response and how the brain and body react to mental stress. When released, the stress hormone cortisol has a negative impact on the brain. Studies show that stress can change the brain's structure and pathways for connectivity, including causing shrinkage of the hippocampus, the crucial structure for memory. Whether by taking a daily walk, bubble bath, routine prayer or meditation, we all can find a way to calm our minds and reduce the harmful side effects of stress.
4. Keep learning. Our brains consist of more than 100 billion neurons, and according to neuroscientists, even the brains of older people can still lay new neuronal pathways, thus strengthening its infrastructure. The more we learn or practice something new with increasing levels of difficulty or challenge, the stronger the neural network becomes.
5. Protect your brain. In addition to ongoing learning, it's very important to focus on protecting your brain. While some people who have suffered a severe head injury may never develop Alzheimer's, certain types of head injuries may increase your risk of developing dementia later in life. According to the Mayo Clinic, those who have had a severe head injury that knocks them out for more than 24 hours seem to have the greater increase in future dementia risk. A head injury that causes unconsciousness for more than 30 minutes but less than 24 hours also seems to increase risk in a smaller extent.
Always wear a seatbelt when you're riding in the car. For those of you with active lifestyles, ensure you are wearing properly-fitting helmets when riding a bike, and especially if you or your child are involved in contact sports.
As National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month comes to a close this November, let's not forget that a cure has yet to be found. Funding is still desperately needed to support continued research. But until then, taking these healthy lifestyle actions may help us to reduce the risk factors for developing Alzheimer's. They also provide the benefit of promoting our overall physical well-being.