We all know how devastating the effects of Alzheimer’s disease can be. But we don’t know why some people develop the condition and others don’t. Yet, while researchers haven’t determined what causes this degenerative brain disease, they have begun to suggest certain risk factors.
Some risk factors can’t be controlled, such as family history, genetic predisposition and gender. (Women are more likely to get Alzheimer’s than men are.) What’s more, studies indicate that the risk of developing Alzheimer’s increases with age—about 10 percent of all people over age 65 have the disease and as many as 50 percent of those over 85 have it, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
On the other hand, the potential risk factors you can control will at the least help promote overall good mental—and physical—health well into your later years. Here’s what scientists have found so far and what you can do to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease:
- Exercise your heart. If your heart muscle doesn’t pump properly, you may be slowly starving for brain food. The risk of Alzheimer’s may increase when blockages prevent the brain from getting a steady supply of blood, oxygen and other nutrients.
- Watch your cholesterol. Cholesterol may narrow brain arteries and promote the buildup of plaque associated with Alzheimer’s, say some researchers. Studies are underway to see whether some cholesterol-lowering drugs may help.
- Eat your asparagus. They’re packed with vitamin E, which may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. Studies suggest the vitamin works best when consumed through foods instead of as a supplement. You can find vitamin E in wheat germ, corn, nuts, seeds, olives and leafy green vegetables.
- Consider supplements. High levels of the amino acid homocysteine may indicate an increased risk for Alzheimer’s. Taking supplements rich in folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12 can help reduce homocysteine levels.
- Ask about aspirin. Some evidence indicates that inflammation in the brain may contribute to Alzheimer’s. Scientists are studying anti-inflammatory drugs such as NSAIDs to see whether they might help prevent Alzheimer’s. Talk with your doctor before taking any medication.
- Cut the cigarettes. Some studies indicate that tobacco use may increase the risk of getting Alzheimer’s; others don’t. But cigarettes put you at risk for stroke, which can greatly impair normal brain function.
- Emphasize education. Alzheimer’s is more predominant among people who are less educated, according to some studies. But those who have had less education also tend to have other risk factors for Alzheimer’s, which may explain the link. No matter what the reason, it’s still a good idea to stay sharp and give your brain a good mental workout every day.
The drug Memantine may help slow the advance of Alzheimer’s disease, according to two recent studies. Patients in the moderate to severe stages of Alzheimer’s showed significant improvement in thinking, moving and accomplishing daily activities while taking the drug.
Memantine was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in October 2003 for treatment of moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease, and has long been prescribed in Germany to treat dementia and other disorders. Four other FDA-approved drugs, called acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, are often prescribed for mild to moderate Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s disease is actually one of a group of disorders known as dementia—what used to be called senility. In Alzheimer’s, nerve cells in areas of the brain responsible for speech, thought, memory and reason die off. As the disease progresses, the sufferer eventually loses the ability to carry out normal daily activities.