Tag Archives: alzheimers disease

Age Related Memory Loss or Something More Serious?

AlzheimersSusanBiconBy Susan Brown
Health & Wellness Editor
 

Along with the publication of the book Still Alice by Lisa Genova, and the subsequent movie, comes a unique understanding of the devastation of Alzheimer’s disease. When, at age 50, Alice is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, we learn about her struggle to maintain her health, her memories, her profession, and the life she has worked so hard to build. We realize how terrifying this disease is for Alice, the family who cherishes her and the colleagues who highly respect her. If nothing else, the book has brought Alzheimer’s out of the closet and onto center stage. Currently, more than 5 million Americans aged 65 and older may have Alzheimer’s disease, an irreversible and progressive brain disease that destroys memory, language skills, and the ability to think, reason and live independently. As the U.S. population ages, it is estimated that 13.5 million people will have Alzheimer’s by the year 2050. Over two-thirds of these people will be women.  

While the cause of Alzheimer’s disease is not fully understood, we do know that Alzheimer’s develops over a long period of time. Researchers believe that the causes of Alzheimer’s may include a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. According to the National Institute on Aging, toxic damage to the brain begins up to a decade before noticeable symptoms develop. While we know that healthy brain neurons are critical to bodily processes, we don’t yet know why abnormal clumps, known as plaques and tangles, develop and spread throughout the brain or why neurons themselves lose the ability to function and communicate and eventually begin to die. As the most common cause of dementia among our older population, many view the loss of memory, reasoning, thinking and the ability to negotiate life’s daily challenges and activities as a normal part of aging.

It is thought that age related changes, such as inflammation, free radical damage and mitochondrial dysfunction, may damage neurons and contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s. While memory problems are often one of the first warning signs of cognitive loss, according to the Alzheimer’s Association there are other warning signs and symptoms. Some will develop a condition known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI), in which there are memory problems beyond what is considered normal. Many with MCI will go on to develop Alzheimer’s. Here are some of the differences between the early warning signs of the disease and typical age-related changes:

  • Warning: Memory loss, especially recent memory, that disrupts the normal flow of life, such as forgetting appointments, important dates or events. Typical: Changes might include forgetting names but recalling them later.
  • Warning: The inability to work with numbers or follow recipes. Typical: Occasional error when balancing a bank statement.
  • Warning: Confusion with time or place. Typical: Forgetting what day it is but remembering later.
  • Warning: Trouble following a conversation and struggling with vocabulary. Typical: Occasional trouble finding the right word.
  • Warning: Poor decision making skills or forgetting about personal hygiene. Typical: Once in a while making a bad decision.
  • Warning: Personality changes such as confusion, depression, anxiousness or fear. Typical: Occasional irritability when routine is disrupted.
  • Warning: Isolation from social activities, hobbies or prior favorite activities. Typical: Taking an occasional time out from obligations.

If it all sounds depressing, take heart. Scientists have developed a cognitive test that can help determine if memory impairments are a result of the normal aging process or are due to very mild Alzheimer’s. While Alzheimer’s is most often diagnosed when the disease has already substantially progressed, cognitive testing is helpful for early treatment recommendations. Although not a cure, early treatment can help preserve function for a period of time. Medications that regulate neurotransmitters may also help for a time. Researchers at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York are currently testing a new drug treatment that may slow the progression of the disease and help preserve precious memories. Additionally, ongoing clinical trials are studying interventions that include cognitive training, physical activity, antioxidants and very importantly, nutrition.

There are also associations between cognitive decline and other age related diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and especially diabetes. Currently, we know that a healthy eating plan, such as the Mediterranean diet, physical activity, social engagement and mentally stimulating activities can all support healthy aging. Newer research suggests that good nutrition and other healthy lifestyle factors, such as frequent exercise and not smoking, have long lasting effects on overall health and wellbeing and may help to reduce the risk of developing cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.

References:
10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s.  http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_10_signs_of_alzheimers.asp
Alzheimer’s Disease.  http://www.nia.nih.gov/sites/default/files/alzheimers_disease_fact_sheet_1.pdf
Diabetes and cognitive decline.  http://www.alz.org/national/documents/topicsheet_diabetes.pdf
Cognitive test can differentiate between Alzheimer’s and normal aging. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140520123515.htm

Everyday Brain Fitness

brainBy Jacquie Eubanks BSN, RN

” A strong body makes the mind strong.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

Neuroscience tells us that physical exercise is good for the brain as well as the body.  Physical activity plays an essential role in maintaining a sharp mind.  According to Laura L. Carstensen, author of A long Bright Future and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, “The latest research shows that cognitive decline is not inevitable.  Although the brain does shrink slightly, it continues to make new neurons and fine-tune neural connections as we age. ”  If you want to reduce your lifetime risk of developing alzheimer’s disease and general dementia, aerobic exercise can help keep cognitive abilities sharp.  Exercise boosts the flow of blood to the brain, resulting in the release of brain chemicals that stimulate the formation of new neurons, work to repair cell damage and strengthen the synapses that connect brain cells.  

Exercise and physical activity are primary components of a healthy lifestyle.  Studies show that everyone, no matter their age or health condition, can increase their brain power by exercising regularly.  Exercise does not have to be strenuous to reap the benefits.  Brisk walking, cycling or other activities that get the body moving and the heart pumping for 150 minutes a week will stimulate the same brain activity.  According to a study done by the Department of Exercise and Science at the University of Georgia, even briefly exercising for 20 minutes at a time facilitates information processing and memory functions.  Regular exercise can result in an increase in brain size, which may be the best memory aid of all. 

Engage in novel and complex activities.  Mental stimulation translates to neurophysiological growth much the same way as aerobic exercise stimulates cardiovascular health.  Learning challenging new skills helps to keep your brain strong by promoting synaptic density and decreasing risk of developing neurogenerative disease.  Physical exercise in conjunction with brain training increases the chances of increasing cognitive skills.  Ballroom dancing or tennis are activities that include both physical and mental demands, which can have a greater impact on cognitive functioning.  It appears that the best brain workouts are those that include coordination, rhythm and strategy.  If you always walk the same route, change up by reversing the route or try a new one altogether. 

Find an exercise partner.  Exercising with a friend not only provides support to keep you on track and motivated, socializing during exercise also helps to exercise the mind.  Studies show that people who engage in social interactions display higher levels of cognitive performance and that these cognitive benefit boosts may occur almost immediately.  Communicating and interacting with others helps maintain strong connections that can have significant health-promoting benefits such as stress reduction and emotional bonding. 

If it’s good for the heart, it’s good for the brain.  The brain and the heart act in harmony to support life.  Nearly 25% of the oxygen and blood from every heartbeat is destined for the brain.  Lifestyle behaviors that benefit brain health have a similar benefit for the cardiovascular system.  Contrarily, brain function may decline as heart disease risk factors increase.  Risk factors that accelerate the brain function degenerative process, such as smoking, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle, are the same risk factors that promote heart disease, which can affect blood supply to the brain and other brain-heart interactions. 

Keep your brain and your heart healthy by making exercise a part of your daily routine.  Exercise boosts the production of proteins that stimulate brain cell growth, brings glucose and oxygen to the brain and helps neurons work optimally.  Adopting a brain healthy diet, limiting your intake of foods high in fat, dietary cholesterol and sugar, and managing your body weight are most effective at reducing risk factors when combined with physical and mental activity and social interaction. 

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