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Reduce Alzheimer’s Risk With A Healthy Lifestyle

My last two posts had to do with the impact of our lifestyle on and our opportunities to lower our risk for cancer, and for good reason. For most us, cancer continues to the disease we fear the most. But if you over 65, there is something you likely fear more than cancer, Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Much like cancer, many people not only fear it, but feel they have little control over it. But as in the case with cancer, there is much that can be done to lower the risk.

AD is the most common form of dementia among older people. Dementia is a brain disorder that seriously affects a person’s ability to carry out daily activities. AD usually begins after age 60 and it first involves the parts of the brain that control thoughts, memory and speech. It is estimated that over 5 million Americans have AD. Data presented at the 2011 Alzheimer’s Association Annual Conference suggested that over 40% of Alzheimer’s case could be attributed to lifestyle factors including lack of physical activity, smoking, hypertension, obesity and diabetes. If those risk factors sound familiar, they should; they are the very same factors that place us at risk for heart disease. In fact, a simple way to remember the major risk factors for AD is the phrase “what is good for your heart is good for your brain.” And the evidence continues to mount.

Researchers at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville Tennessee, suspected that both good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol play a role as well. Their research suggests that low levels of HDL and high levels of LDL may contribute to the development of amyloid plaques. Amyloid plaques in the brain are one of the distinguishing characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease. When asked what could be done to help fight dementia, Peggye Dilworth-Anderson, president of the Gerontological Society of America and a board member of the Alzheimer’s Association responded, “invest in (and use regularly) a good pair of walking shoes.”

As mentioned earlier, AD first affects the portion of the brain that controls memory; the hippocampus is the main area of the brain that controls memory, especially short term memory. Even without the influence of AD, the hippocampus tends to shrink in late adulthood as a normal part of aging. An exciting study published the January 31, 2011, edition of the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that people in their late 50’s to early 80’s who exercised aerobically for 40 minutes, three times a week not only prevented normal age related brain tissue loss, but INCREASED the size of their hippocampus by 2%. As a result, the participants experienced improvement in their memory function. These findings suggest that aerobic exercise may be effective at not only preventing, but reversing hippocampal volume loss. The potential implications of this study are significant. If exercise can reverse normal age related loss of brain tissue, perhaps it could help reverse the loss of brain tissue as a result AD as well.

For more information about AD, visit the Alzheimer’s Association website at http://www.alz.org/.

For a good general overview of AD and to see what happens inside the brain as a result of AD, take a look at this video: http://www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers/alzheimers-disease-video.

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