Many people confuse Alzheimer’s with age-related dementia, thinking that it is more or less part of growing old. The truth is that Alzheimer’s is a fatal disease that first robs its victims of their identity (it steals memories, changes personality), and eventually kills. This process, while hard on the patient, is possibly even harder on the family who watches a loved one transform before their eyes. How preventable this horrible disease is has only recently begun to come to light: Alzheimer’s does not have to be part of growing old.
We all know that eating healthy and exercising regularly are important for our health. But did you know that cutting red meat and fried food from your diet can also prevent the developemtn of Alzheimer’s disease? Research conducted at Columbia University in 2006 found that the “Mediterranean Diet” corresponds with a 40% reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. If regular exercise is added to this diet, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s is 67% less than for a person with the normal American diet and little exercise.
So what is this “Mediterranean diet” that seems to grant such a magical protection to one of the most terrifying threats of old age? The Mediterranean diet differs from the diet of the average American in several important ways. For one, it includes much more fish and very little red meat. It also includes greater amounts of nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, as well as moderate amounts of red wine. And most notably: it does not include fried foods. Anybody who is watching their cholesterol will already recognize this diet as being healthy for the heart, and while researchers still are not clear on why this similarity in risk factors exist, research does seem to indicate that “what is good for the heart, is good for the mind.”
Other Risk Factors
In addition to diet, other risk factors that are under our control have long been known to greatly affect the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. For example, smoking after the age of 65 increases the chance of developing Alzheimer’s by 79%, and obesity in midlife increases the risk by 350%. As if that were not enough, chronic stress may increase this risk by another 400%. But genetics also play a role of course, although at only 25%, it seems minimal in comparison to the risk factors of smoking, obesity, and stress.
Identify and Reduce Risk Factors
Identifying the factors which we can change to prevent Alzheimer’s disease is, of course, only part of the solution. The other part, the larger part, is actually changing habit and behavior.
First, identify what your risk factors are. Do you already exercise but include fatty hamburgers or fried chicken in your regular meals? Do you eat well, but smoke? Do you have trouble “relaxing” and managing stress? Do you simply eat too much and have difficulty keeping the weight off?
Secondly, after identifying your personal risk factors, identify realistic changes that you could make to reduce the risk (stop eating the hamburgers; starting walking every day, etc). Then, with the help of a spouse, family member, or professional, develop a plan to make these changes happen, including an agrement which will outline what you will do if you do not stick to the plan (realistic consequences that you and your partner can hold you to).
Thankfully, there is already a great awareness of the health related dangers resulting from these risk factors and so there is already a great amount of resources available to assist with reducing these risk factors. Exercise, weight loss, and smoking programs are common place, and any trip to the doctor will usually result in an emphasis on these risk factors, so if you are struggling with making changes, ask your doctor about getting help. Making broad lifestyle changes can be difficult, but it is never impossible.