If you could do one thing to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease even if you had the genetic markers for the condition, would you do it? This preventive measure is effective in 32% of the people who have the genetic link to Alzheimer’s, and it also works to prevent high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. What do you think? At what cost, you may say? If I told you that it only costs a bit of time, would you be more or less willing to take the step to save your memory, your heart, etc.?
Since 2006-2010 the United Kingdom has maintained a data base of nearly 200,000 60-plus year old people whose genetic profiles place them at high risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. In research recently reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers reported what they found among these individuals approximately ten years later. The individuals who already had cognitive impairment were excluded from the panel, and the rest were followed with markers of their lifestyle choices. The group with the “healthy lifestyles” were labeled so because they did not smoke, consumed moderate alcohol, maintained a “healthy diet” and engaged in regular physical activity.
At the end of the roughly 8 to 10 years that people were followed, 1,769 developed some form of dementia. When comparing those who had maintained a “healthy lifestyle” with those who did not, the researchers found that the unhealthy participants were three times as likely as their more active and healthier counterparts to develop dementia. Both groups had similar genetic predispositions to develop dementia. It was the lifestyle that seemed to sort them out.
The researchers admit that the samples of people they followed were heavily European and generally well-educated. And they were all volunteers to the study. Yet, what differentiated those who developed symptomatic dementia from those who did not – and they had a similar genetic predispositions – was their lifestyles – physically active, non-smokers, healthy eating, moderate drinking.
I had mentioned blood pressure, heart attack and stroke in my first paragraph. A very similar pattern holds there also. In fact, go to the Physicians’ Desk Reference or your own prescription package insert (that flimsy page with lots of small print that comes with your script) if you are on a medication for any of these conditions. It will say close to the top of the explanation of the clinical data on your medication that diet and exercise are the first line of treatment for these indications. What that means is that the doctor should prescribe healthy diet and exercise, before going for the prescription pad. Consider it a bonus, then, that even if “dementia is in your family,” it does not have to be a certainty that you also will have it. Let’s go take a walk and then rethink what you will eat once you return home.
Charlotte Bishop is an Aging Life Care Advisor, Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago. She also is the co-author of How Do I Know You? A Caregiver’s Lifesaver for Dealing with Dementia.