Avoiding Alzheimer's disease

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

August 2008

Few health problems stir us as deeply as age-related dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Among those of us who are seniors, when we forget a name or misplace our keys we think at least fleetingly: "Am I starting to get Alzheimer's disease?"

Don't fret about memory lapses. Most persons who complain about them will find that they do well on formal testing. And although memory does decline as we get older, dementia and Alzheimer's disease are not a part of the normal aging process. In a study of several hundred hunter-gatherers older than 70 years, less than one percent had dementia. Lifestyle has more to do with brain decline than aging does. We can't avoid all the mental slippage that comes with added years but we can slow it down considerably with less effort than most people realize.

There is no substitute for an active body to keep your brain working on all cylinders. Moderately intense physical activity on a regular basis not only helps to preserve the brain cells you have and increases connections between them, it promotes the growth of new cells. Any kind of activity is good; vigorous activity most days of the week is better. Persons who walk briskly for 30 minutes or more several times a week have less Alzheimer's disease.

The brain represents only about 2 percent of the mass of the body but it demands nearly one quarter of the output of every heartbeat. Without miles of healthy, wide-open blood vessels, don't expect the brain to work well. Exercise not only helps to keep those vessels open, it keeps blood pressure down. Even a small elevation of blood pressure results in measurable changes in thinking ability and problem-solving.

Americans are notoriously deficient in several nutrients that matter in overall health as well as brain health. The leader among these is fish oil with its high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, which make up more than half the mass of the nerve cells of the brain. That may help to explain why 100-year old island-dwelling Okinawans have little Alzheimer's disease and are able to recite the names of their great-grandchildren.

Conversely, eating the wrong kinds of fats increases the risk of dementia. Among a group of seniors over the age of 65, those with a high intake of either saturated or trans fat had more than double the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease than those whose diet contained small amounts of either one.

There is a wide variety of brain-healthy nutrients in fruits and vegetables, especially folic acid and antioxidants. When you replace your usual dinnertime potatoes, rice or pasta with an extra serving of vegetables you'll slow down the creeping obesity that plagues nearly three-quarters of persons over the age of 60, and with it the creeping dementia that devastates a high percentage of persons with obesity or its fellow-traveler, type 2 diabetes.

Finally, don't put your brain in neutral. Learn a language, study music or challenge your mind with crossword puzzles or sudoku. Avoid what columnist George Will calls "an ever-deepening advance of wintery whiteness, a protracted paring away of personality."

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.