Most families have had experience with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, and my family is no different. My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2002, right after my grandfather died and the loss of cognitive function could be hidden no longer. She first lived at home, then had in-home caregivers, and was eventually moved into an assisted living facility where her neurological function continued to decline over time.
Everything went backwards for her. She was unable to recognize the youngest of the grandchildren first, but man she could still sing that Carolina fight song! There was a picture of the Old Well hanging in her room, and when I would visit (I was in college at Carolina at the time) we would sing together- “Rah rah Carolina-lina, rah rah Carolina-lina, rah rah Carolina-lina, rah rah RAH!”
But eventually, as what happens with the disease, she forgot even that. She was unable to sing, unable to communicate, and finally, unable to feed herself. She lived with the diagnosis for 13 years.
Today, there’s a 10% chance of developing some sort of dementia for people over 65, and people over 85 have a staggering 50% chance of developing Alzheimer’s. The likelihood of getting the disease is made even scarier by the fact that after a diagnosis comes, you are told to get your affairs in order and prepare for a time when you have life in your body, but no function in your brain.
Cognitive decline terrifies me. So I tend to keep my ears open when it is discussed in the media. Right before Christmas I learned about The Alzheimer’s Solution, a book by Dean and Ayesha Sherzai. I couldn’t wait to read it, and I was not disappointed. The book is chock full of up to date research and findings about how best to live in a way that prevents or delays Alzheimer’s. The conclusion is that with appropriate lifestyle changes, Alzheimer’s can be prevented in 90% of the population, and delayed 10-15 years for the most genetically susceptible.
So what is this secret sauce that can delay or even prevent Alzheimer’s? As with most solutions, it is not a simple one thing that you do, but an assortment of measures that can be applied. Their key is the acronym NEURO.
NEURO stands for: Nutrition, Exercise, Unwind, Recharge, and Optimize. All of these are components of a healthy lifestyle, which leads to brain health, and how one can prevent or delay Alzheimer’s. A healthy lifestyle means a plant-based diet, regular exercise, stress management, community involvement, and higher levels of cognitive activity (like playing music, chess, or bridge). Which aspect is highest priority for a person to implement depends on their current lifestyle, and what is at the greatest deficit.
- A plant-based diet is recommended because cholesterol and saturated fats, which are prevalent in animal products, are closely associated with cognitive degeneration. Consumption of cholesterol and saturated fat also increase your risk for cardiovascular disease, and the brain is a heavy consumer of blood. The easiest way to avoid cholesterol and saturated fats is to avoid animal products.
- Regular aerobic exercise is recommended because it increases blood flow to the brain. Anything that reduces blood flow, such as plaques in our arteries or being sedentary for long periods of time) reduces our cognitive function, especially short-term memory. Increased blood flow through exercise increases brain size, improves executive function, and protects against cognitive decline.
- This aspect of a healthy lifestyle is all about finding a way to relax. Uncontrolled stress results in elevated levels of cortisol, and high levels of cortisol are linked to increased risk of Alzheimer’s. Ongoing stress interferes with the production of new cells and the growth of neurons, and can even destroy fully formed cells. The book talks specifically about the benefits of mediation, and alternatives to mediation if you just can’t sit still or are resistant to the idea of meditating, such as time spent in nature or simplifying/decluttering. The important thing is to make sure whatever you are doing works, and you are actually relaxing.
- Restore is focused on rest, and how important sleep is to brain health. Rather than being a time where nothing happens, sleep is when your brain cleans out amyloids, the presence of which are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s, and when you brain consolidates memories- turning short-term into long-term, getting rid of unneeded memories (although I wish I got to choose what was unneeded! Hah!), and organizing thought processes. The real kicker? Most people, regardless of age, needs at least 7 to 8 hours. Some people can thrive on 6 hours, and how much sleep you needs depends on how quickly you move through the various sleep cycles and phases. You need to look honestly and critically at your sleep habits to see if you are getting enough.
- This chapter spoke about the importance of stimulating and challenging your brain to keep it healthy. Community engagement and social activities, or learning a new skill, practicing music, or playing bridge are all stimulating activities. Brain games don’t really do the trick, because they typically only focus on one aspect of brain activity- Sudoku uses mathematical centers and crossword puzzles use language centers. The key is engaging in complex and mildly challenging activities.
The book goes into much greater detail on all of the aspects of a healthy lifestyle, but I loved how comprehensive it was in painting a picture of health. You can eat nothing but vegetables, but if you are not engaged in your community, your health will suffer. You can volunteer every day and play piano at your church, but if you are not sleeping, you will see the negative effects.
One last thing the book touches on, but I wish was covered in greater detail, was the fact that even minor positive changes resulted in measurable improvements in outcomes. That’s to say that you shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the list above. Pick your weakest spot, and start small. Work up to it. Every little bit closer you get to a healthy lifestyle, you give yourself that much more protection from Alzheimer’s.
If you want to hear more, the Sherzais were interviewed on the Rich Roll podcast, and they went into even greater details during their talk. You can listen to the podcast here.
Everyone who has a history of Alzheimer’s in their family should read this book, which means everyone should read this book. Here’s to brain health!