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Alzheimer’s Disease and Brain Health: Increasing Your Quality of Life to Decrease Your Risk of Dementia

With Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month having just passed, Door County Medical Center wanted to discuss not only the disease and its symptoms, but also the many ways you can keep your brain healthy and decrease the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia

The term “dementia” broadly describes the various symptoms of cognitive decline, which include forgetfulness, personality changes and impaired reasoning. Dementia is not a single disease, but is a symptom of several different diseases and brain disorders. Alzheimer’s Disease is the leading cause of dementia in the United States and worldwide, and is responsible for 50% to 70% of all dementia cases.

Alzheimer’s Disease awarenessMore than 5.5 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s Disease.1 Every 66 seconds, someone in the U.S. develops Alzheimer’s. It has become the 6th leading cause of death in the United States and Wisconsin, and is responsible for more deaths than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. In fact, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, “1 in 3 seniors die with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.”

There are economic and societal costs to Alzheimer’s and dementia as well. Caring for someone with dementia can be one of the most difficult tasks that one can undertake. It can take both an emotional toll on the provider, as well as an economic one. In 2020, roughly 16 million Americans—usually loved ones—will provide around 18.6 billion hours of unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia at a value of nearly $244 billion. Indeed, it is estimated that this year alone “Alzheimer’s and other dementia’s will cost the nation $305 billion,” by 2050, those costs could rise to $1.1 trillion.

What causes Alzheimer’s Disease?

The primary cause of Alzheimer’s is believed to be the development of two types of abnormal structures in the brain that can damage and kill nerve cells. Plaques, which build up in the space between the brain’s nerve cells, are made up of deposits of a protein fragment called beta-amyloid. Tangles, which build up inside nerve cells, form from the twisted fibers of a different protein called tau. How plaques and tangles develop, and their role in Alzheimer’s Disease, isn’t yet fully understood, however, scientists believe that these structures “play a critical role in blocking communication among nerve cells and disrupting processes that cells need to survive.”

Early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

It is a common misconception that once someone has begun to develop Alzheimer’s nothing can be done about it. To the contrary, while there is no known cure for this disease, there are a number of treatments that can affect its progression by slowing or even stopping the development of the plaques that damage brain cells. Being aware of the early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s is very important because the earlier these treatments can start, the more effective their results will be.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the 10 early signs and symptoms of the disease are:

  • Memory loss that disrupts daily life
  • Challenges in planning or problem solving
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks
  • Confusion with time or place
  • Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
  • New problems with words in speaking or writing
  • Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
  • Decreased or poor judgment
  • Withdrawal from work or social activities
  • Changes in mood or personality

Prevention and brain health

While there is no way for anyone to completely prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s, there are ways to greatly minimize the likelihood of developing the disease. Research suggests that Alzheimer’s results from a complex interaction of numerous risk factors that include: age, lifestyle, genetics and underlying medical conditions. Although we cannot adjust our age and genetics, lifestyle and underlying medical conditions can be addressed.

The Alzheimer’s Association reports, “Several conditions known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease—such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol—also increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.” They add, “Autopsy studies show that as many as 80 percent of individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease also have cardiovascular disease.”

Positive lifestyle changes—eating healthy, exercising, and staying socially connected—will not only improve quality of life, but will also reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Physical exercise and diet

Exercising on a regular basis is one of the best ways to improve cardiovascular health and decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. While any increase in activity level is good, the recommended weekly goal is either:

  • Moderate aerobic activity, like walking or riding a bike, for about 20 minutes a day, or
  • Intense aerobic activity, like jogging or swimming, for around 10 minutes a day.

It may help to work up to those levels over time, or become involved in activities like gardening, that produce a tangible result. Additionally, becoming involved in sports both increases cardiovascular health and builds social connections.

Diets that are “heart-healthy” are also “brain-healthy.” This means limiting the intake of sugar and saturated fats, and increasing fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The Alzheimer’s Association suggests two diets that have been shown to be beneficial to brain and cardiovascular health: the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and the Mediterranean diet. Both diets emphasize vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, fish and oils with healthy fats, like olive oil. And, both diets avoid red meat and sugar. For more information on both the Mediterranean and DASH diets, click here.

Staying socially and mentally active

Your brain, like your body needs to stay active in order to stay healthy. This means staying both socially connected and intellectually stimulated. When we are involved in any social situation, our brains need to employ neural networks from several different areas in order to process the information coming from that interaction and to stay engaged in that interaction. Indeed, face-to-face interaction could be viewed as a “mental workout” for the brain. Studies have shown that people who engage in even 10 minutes of daily social interaction perform better on cognitive assessments than those who don’t, and those who have large social networks are, on average, 26 percent less likely to develop dementia than those with smaller social networks. And, research shows it is important to socialize outside of the family. Different ways to stay socially active outside of the home include:

  • Joining clubs: Examples include book clubs, bridge clubs and dance clubs.
  • Exercise groups: Not only do exercise groups help maintain physical health, but they also promote social interaction. Try joining a walking group, gardening group, or a yoga or Tai Chi class.
  • Volunteering: Helping out at a local soup kitchen, or working with kids at your local Boys & Girls Club is a great way to broaden your social circle. Volunteering has also been shown to improve mental health, which in turn also reduces the likelihood of developing dementia in later life.

It has been shown that old dogs can learn new tricks. In fact, learning can continue throughout life and is a great way to keep mentally active, improve memory and reduce the risk of developing dementia. Many of the social activities mentioned above—like book clubs and dance clubs—also require continued learning, but you can also keep mentally active by learning something completely new. For instance, try:

  • Studying a foreign language
  • Learning an instrument
  • Learning a new technology
  • Creating art
  • Taking a class online or at a community college

Like social interaction, learning new languages and instruments, creating art, and learning new skills in general, requires mental activity across numerous regions of the brain. Additionally, learning a new skill increases the number of neurons and neural connections that form in the brain. And the cognitive benefits of learning a new skill are clear, one 2013 study in Neurology, for example, showed that people that spoke more than one language delayed the onset of dementia by an average of 4.5 years.

Door County Medical Center’s Memory Care Program is here for you

If someone you know is showing early symptoms of dementia it is important to contact DCMC’s Memory Care Program for a free memory screening, which is often performed in the comfort of a person’s home. Memory screenings are generally comprised of simple memory tests that can help determine whether someone should adjust lifestyle, visit DCMC’s Memory Clinic for further evaluation, or contact a primary care physician.

“Our Memory Clinic,” says its Medical Director, Dr. Paul Board, “has been operating since 2011 and is one of 39 Memory Diagnostic Clinics affiliated with the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute (WAI) and University of Wisconsin. Our Memory Clinic Team is comprised of Internal Medicine & Geriatric Physicians, a Geriatric Nurse Practitioner, Social Worker, Certified RN Care Manager, Occupational Therapists, Certified Medical Assistants, and a Geriatric Outreach Coordinator. Our goal is to provide caring, supportive, evidence based guidance to patients and their families as they navigate through the challenging road associated with Alzheimer’s Disease or other memory impairment conditions.”

In describing the Memory Clinic’s approach to patient care, Dr. Board points to the 2014 movie Still Alice, in which Julianne Moore plays the title role of a 50 year old linguistics professor diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s Dementia. “She is invited to speak at an Alzheimer’s Association benefit meeting and describes her journey with progressive impairment: ‘My yesterdays are disappearing and my tomorrows are uncertain. So what do I live for?  I live for each day.  I live in the moment.’ Our Team,” Dr. Board continues, “is committed to helping patients and their family live each moment as best they can.”

For a more comprehensive look at Alzheimer’s Disease, please visit the Alzheimer’s Association website: https://www.alz.org/. For more information or DCMC’s Memory Care Program please visit our website at: https://dcmedical.org/Medical-Services/Memory-Care, or call our Memory Clinic at (920) 746-3504 to schedule an appointment. For more information on classes, workshops and events at DCMC, please click here: https://www.dcmedical.org/classes-and-events.

  1. Unless otherwise noted, the Alzheimer’s Association provides all statistics: https://www.alz.org/.

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