An estimated 5.2 million Americans over the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, a number that may nearly triple in the next thirty years as the population of older Americans continues to grow dramatically. Growing older is the greatest known risk factor for Alzheimer’s; the disease currently affects 1 in 9 Americans over the age of 65 and 1 in 3 over the age of 85. “The prevalence of Alzheimer’s is startling and frightening for older Americans and their families,” says functional medicine specialist Dr. Marsha Nunley, founder of H.E.A.L. Medical. “As a society and as individuals, we are more health-conscious than ever before and yet the threat of Alzheimer’s looms over our ‘golden years’. As researchers continue to pursue treatment and prevention solutions, we want to do everything we can ourselves to ward off the disease and maintain our physical and cognitive vitality as we age.”
Despite the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease among older people, it is not necessarily a natural consequence of aging. The memory loss that characterizes Alzheimer’s disease is associated with a well known formation of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain. Top researcher and California neurologist Dr. Dale Bredesen, director of UCLA’s Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research, believes that an intensive program of hormone replacement, diet, proper sleep, key supplements, strategic fasting and stress reduction can reduce and even reverse Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Bredesen has developed a program that functional medicine specialists, including Dr. Nunley, are using to look at a person’s genetics, nutrition and lifestyle and to create a plan for helping them to delay and even eliminate the chances of them developing Alzheimer’s.
While scientists don’t yet know precisely what triggers damage to the nerve cells, they know that the changes that typify Alzheimer’s occur first in the cerebral cortex, which is the seat of learning. That’s why the first sign of the disease is usually the inability to remember newly learned information. As damage spreads to other parts of the brain, other symptoms appear and the disease becomes progressively more severe.
“While risk factors for Alzheimer’s include those that cannot be changed – age, family history, and genetics – there is increasing evidence that there are factors that are under our control and things we can do to mitigate risk or delay the onset of symptoms,” says Dr. Nunley. “We can modify our behavior and lead a ‘brain-healthy’ lifestyle that will help keep our brains healthier longer.”
Dr. Nunley identifies important factors in maintaining brain and body fitness:
- Regular exercise can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and slow its progression in those who have begun to develop symptoms. Exercise increases blood and oxygen flow to the brain and stimulates the brain to maintain existing network connections and develop new ones. An exercise regimen should include aerobic exercise and strength training as well as balance exercises to reduce the risk of falls, particularly to guard against head trauma, which is a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
- A healthy diet – high in vegetables, brightly colored fruits, healthy fats, and low in added sugar – can help maintain cognitive health. Some studies have found benefits in specific nutrients such as the omega-3 fatty acid in salmon and sardines; the anti-oxidants and vitamins in green leafy vegetables and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli; and substances that remove toxins from the brain, found in ginger, soy products, blueberries and other dark berries. Foods to avoid include soda and packaged, refined, and processed foods, especially those high in refined carbohydrates and sweeteners like sugar, high fructose corn syrup, which cause inflammation in the brain and elsewhere.
- Intellectual stimulation – learning something new, doing puzzles, reading, memorizing – stimulates the brain, makes it more adaptable, and builds up a “cognitive reserve” that can take over if function is disrupted or lost. The more challenging the activity, the more significant the benefit.
- Social activity – maintaining strong ties and developing new friendships – is associated with a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Studies confirm that social interaction also contributes to mental stimulation; those who are most engaged socially perform best on tests of memory and cognition.
In conclusion, good general health supports good brain health. Stop smoking; maintain a healthy weight, exercise at least 150 minutes a week, sleep 7-8 hours a night; and drink alcohol only on special occasions.
“Alzheimer’s disease is not an inevitable result of aging. While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are ways of minimizing its effects and forestalling or minimizing its development,” says Dr. Nunley. “People who feel that they are at risk for Alzheimer’s or who are concerned with symptoms they are experiencing should seek out the advice of a functional medicine doctor who will take a comprehensive look at their risk factors, lifestyle and diet and put them on a program to minimize and potentially stop the onset of the disease,” adds Dr. Nunley.
Marsha Nunley, M.D., founder of H.E.A.L. Medical is board-certified in internal medicine, geriatric medicine, and palliative care. Dr. Nunley specializes in functional medicine, a systems-based approach to treating the whole person. http://www.marshanunleymd.com