11/12/2013 05:23 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Can We Prevent Alzheimer's? November Is Alzheimer's Awareness Month

It always bothers me. A once-vibrant, articulate and energetic person sits stone-faced and distant as an anxious family member describes a slow retreat into a silent world. The triggers may vary for the onset of this type of dementia, but the suffering for the entire family is a constant.

Alzheimer's is now the 6th leading cause of death, with approximately 5 million Americans living with this disease. (1) The cost of Alzheimer's in 2013 is slated to reach $203 billion, but even more staggering is the prediction that Alzheimer's disease management may cost $1.2 trillion dollars by 2050. (2)

As we learn more about this disease and we increase awareness about Alzheimer's, I believe that there are strategies we can use to prevent the onset of dementia. Our celebrities that have battled Alzheimer's, including Ronald Reagan and Rita Hayworth, have helped us to collectively understand the relevance of the toll Alzheimer's can take on a family, a community and a society.

In the many discussions on Alzheimer's, what often gets missed is that 60 percent of adults with mild cognitive impairment will progress to Alzheimer's dementia. (3) This is a missed opportunity in fighting and preventing this disease. If we can target our adults with mild cognitive impairment -- forgetting phone numbers, where you put the keys, birthdays, anniversaries, and appointments -- we may have a real chance of preventing the slow decline into a world of dementia.

There are patterns we have observed in practice that can help to reverse or prevent Alzheimer's.

Nutrition, Nutrition, Nutrition

There is an Alzheimer's prevention diet. Protein and healthy fats support the neurotransmitters and nutrients needed for ideal brain balance. Insulin regulation prevents inflammation. Achieving this balance requires a diet where 20 percent of intake is from healthy or good fats. Avocados, nut butters, flax seeds, coconut and olive oil are healthy fats that can support brain health and prevent the progression of cognitive impairment.

Protein support helps regulate insulin and prevents blood sugar fluctuations. Increasing protein to 60 grams per day, using a variety of sources, supports brain function. Meats, nuts, seeds, and lentils are examples of good protein sources.

2. Create a Brain Spa -- Manage Stress

I have seen many patients dive into dementia following a traumatic event. They may have lost a loved one or had a financial upheaval. Managing stress prevents dementia. Consistent exercise, regular sleep cycles and self care regimens lower the impact of severe stress. Encourage your loved one to exercise daily, get outdoors and practice good "self love'" engaging in massage, acupuncture or yoga on a regular basis. Meditation and prayer are also ways to lower stress hormones and can be easily done at home.

3. Brain Gym -- Boost Brain Function

My greatest fear for our seniors is that the gift of retirement is often a prescription for a decline in mental health. The brain is a plastic organ and requires challenge, critical thinking and structure to stay healthy and active. For seniors who are not working and are showing signs of cognitive decline, creating a brain gym may help to halt progression into dementia. Ideas for a brain gym include a four-hour work day, writing exercises like journaling or story telling, playing a musical instrument or cooking meals consistently. These are all opportunities to challenge the mind and offer our seniors a sense of responsibility and self esteem, factors that are important in keeping the mind healthy. Puzzles and games help as well, but do not have a sense of urgency for completion as do chores that require completion.

4. No More One Size Fits All -- Find the Functional Issues

Within our practice, the emphasis on Alzheimer's treatment and prevention is on identifying functional medicine defects in the body; for example, some patients require more antioxidants than others, some have issues with methylation, while others may have heavy metals or a body burden of toxic chemicals that impair cognition. For many women, hormonal fluctuations are at the root of a progression into dementia. Instead of one size fits all, Alzheimer's management becomes an individual conversation with an individualized treatment plan. Finding the functional medicine deficit is a key to prevention and progression of this disease.

5. Build a Village -- Create Social Support

Once out of the workplace, many seniors find themselves with limited interactions or social opportunities. Like children, seniors need a village of people, preferably family, surrounding them. The connections and communications forge a sense of safety for seniors, especially when the world around them seems increasingly foreign. Encourage your family or community to rally around your seniors; engaging them, giving them responsibility and supporting them may be the best prescription for Alzheimer's prevention.

Identifying our seniors with early onset cognitive impairment and aggressively helping them to create a plan of action to prevent this disease can prevent your loved one for retreating into the silent world of dementia. Fight for your family members and help them learn strategies to live healthy naturally.