More than five million Americans now suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, and unlike many other diseases there is no known cure for it; furthermore, half of the people over 85 will get it. Unlike most diseases, it’s mainly a genetic disease, and it is now known that a gene called Apo E4 is involved; if you have it (and about 25-percent of the population does) your chances of developing the disease are much greater. The good news, however, is that there are many things you can do to help prevent it.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Basically it is a slow, progressive deterioration of the brain that takes place over many years. During this time, the basic components of the brain, known as neurons, are damaged and destroyed, and as a result, the brain shrinks. In particular, the brains of people with an advanced form of the disease become filled with clumps and plaques of “guck” called beta-amyloids, and “tangles” of toxic protein called tau. Furthermore, when the brain is examined closely it appears to be filled with holes.
Alzheimer’s disease is actually part of a more common malady referred to as dementia. But about 60 to 80-percent of all dementia is some form of Alzheimer’s disease. Although it’s basic features are similar, there are actually several variations of Alzheimer’s disease, so it can’t be said to be a single disease.
One of the main effects of Alzheimer’s disease is loss of memory, and it’s well-known that memory is associated with the neurons. In many ways, these neurons are like transmission lines that carry tiny electrical currents. In Alzheimer’s disease, neurons (and the connections between them) become coated with guck called beta-amyloid. The neurons that are mainly affected are in the parts of the brain known as the hippocampus and frontal cortex.
There are billions of neurons within the brain, and they are separated by what are called synapses. Electrical signals pass along the neurons, but they can’t jump across the synapses. They are transmitted across them by what are called neurotransmitters, one of the most common of which is acetylcholine. So it’s important to keep your neurons in good shape and have a good supply of acetylcholine.
As we saw, however. beta-amyloid destroys neurons. Fortunately you have a gene that works to stop the destruction, and it is called Apo E. It sweeps along the transmission lines and fixes and renovates them. It has a close cousin, however, that sabotages its work; it is called Apo E4. So ideally what you would like is an ample supply of Apo E in your body, and very little Apo E4. Some people, however, have an oversupply of Apo E4, and as a result, they are more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease. But as you will see there are many things you can do to increase Apo E and decrease Apo E4.
Forgetfulness: Is it just normal aging, or the beginning of Alzheimer’s
The big question about Alzheimer’s disease is: how do you know when you are beginning to develop it? It is, after all, a slowly progressing disease and in most people it goes through several stages, usually referred to as early, moderate and advanced.
Almost all older people have a tendency to forget, and forgetfulness is an indication of the first stages of Alzheimer’s. So how do you tell if your forgetfulness is normal or a signal of early Alzheimer’s? For the most part, it depends on the type of forgetfulness. Forgetting where you left your car keys, and forgetting that you have a car are quite different. There are, however, general signs of early Alzheimer’s disease. They are:
Difficulty doing things that were once very easy (such as writing a check).
Disorientation. Not knowing where you are, and getting lost easily.
The inability to recall relatively common words.
Misplacing things. In particular, putting things away in very strange places.
Changes in mood or behavior. Sudden hostility and anxiety.
Distinct changes in personality.
What You Can do to Avoid Alzheimer’s
Genes play a relatively large role in the development of the disease (about 50 to 75-percent) but you have control of the remainder, and there are many things you can do that help. They are associated with four major areas:
Using and challenging your brain
Exercise and physical activity
A proper diet
A good social life with little stress or depression
In relation to these the following are useful guides:
Challenge your brain. The old saying “Use it or lose it” is one of the most important things you can do. It’s well-known that the more education you have, the greater your chances of avoiding it. But keeping mentally active throughout your life is equally important. Reading, crossword puzzles, learning and playing music, taking a class on something that interests you, playing stimulating games are all helpful. Anything that makes you use your memory is particularly good.
Several well-known researchers have emphasized that exercise is one of the best things you can do. In particular, it has been shown to decrease Apo E4. Aerobic exercise is best, with walking, swimming, biking, calisthenics all being excellent forms. One of the reasons that exercise is good is that it increases the blood supply to the brain which, in turn, helps build new neurons. Resistance exercise such as weight lifting is also good.
Diet is also critical. In particular, eat foods high in antioxidants. The best are vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, beets, and fruits (and berries) such as blueberries, strawberries, oranges and pink grapefruit. Other things that are helpful are fish, eggs, nuts and coffee. Also watch red meat and avoid fast foods as much as possible.
Have a good circle of friends and socialize. Avoid being alone a lot of the time.
Watch your sugar consumption. Avoid diabetes.
Control your blood pressure.
Make sure you get enough vitamins: particularly, B6, B12, niacin and D3.
Get sufficient sleep.
Control your cholesterol.
Avoid toxins, such as smoke, cleaning chemicals, pollutants and so on.
Barry Parker, Ph. D., is a professor emeritus (physics, biophysics) at Idaho State University. He is the author of 25 books on science, health, writing and music. He has a strong interest in health and fitness, self-improvement and music. His most recent book is “Learn from Yesterday, Live for Today, Hope for Tomorrow.” He is also the author of “Feel great Feel alive.” His website is http://www.Barryparkerbooks.com
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