Aging, Alzheimer's And The Long-Term Health Of Brains

University Place: Preventive Action Can Help Diminish Dementia And Ensure Vitality
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Every 65 seconds, someone in the United States develops Alzheimer's disease, and its prevalence is growing as the nation ages. But no matter how much one may not like it, aging is a part of life that is unavoidable. But when it comes to the long-term care for the brain, there are four areas key to preparing for a healthier old age: physical and mental health, diet and nutrition, cognitive activity and social engagement.

Sharlene Bellefeuille, community outreach specialist at the Alzheimer's Association Greater Wisconsin Chapter, outlined the all four aspects of brain health and discussed steps for improving them in an Oct. 20, 2016 talk recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place. She explained that forging a healthy future free of dementia depends on a mix of environmental and internal factors, some of which can't be controlled.

"We have control over certain things and certain things that we just have to let be," Bellefeuille said. "One of the things that we talk about is that we can control our lifestyle many times. We have a challenge in controlling our environment, and we really don't have much control at all over our genes."

Alzheimer's is a progressive disease that slowly attacks brain cells until they die, Bellefeuille said. According to the national Alzheimer's Association, the disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., and its mortality rate increased more than 120 percent between 2000 and 2015. In 2018, there were an estimated 5.7 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s, a number that is projected to more than double by mid-century given that nearly minute-by-minute rate of people developing the disease, notes the Association.

In terms of costs, total payments to care for people living with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia will reach $277 billion in 2018, according to the Association, and is projected to increase to more than $1.1 trillion by 2050.

In Wisconsin, the number of people projected to have Alzheimer's is expected to increase from about 110,000 to 130,000 by 2025, as detailed in a 2018 report by the Association. The disease's 2015 mortality rate in the state was 36.2 percent, slightly above the national average. Given that Wisconsin's population is aging rapidly, these challenges are expected to grow in coming decades.

The number one risk factor for Alzheimer's is age, Bellefeuille explained. Other factors that can also increase risks for the disease include head injuries, cardiovascular health and level of education.

While aging cannot be prevented, people can take steps to prolong good health. Bellefeuille stressed that small changes ultimately lead to big results, and it's better to make these changes later in life than never at all.

Key facts

  • Dementia and Alzheimer's are not synonymous. Alzheimer's is a disease that attacks the brain. Dementia is a broader term used to describe memory loss and decline in mental ability, and is typically used as an umbrella reference to describe a group of symptoms. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia.

  • Having a healthy heart is key to having a healthy brain, given the interconnected relationship between these organs. A healthy heart ensures that the brain gets the amount of oxygen and blood it needs to function properly. Avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can help maintain a healthy cardiovascular system, since both activities constrict blood vessels and blood flow to the brain.

  • Research has revealed mixed results when it comes to the relationship between high cholesterol and dementia. Some findings indicate they are related, while others not suggested such a connection. However, there is a growing amount of evidence that heart disease and stroke will increase a person's risk for dementia.

  • There is no known cure for Alzheimer's disease. Currently, therapies and treatments exist, but, they are simply addressing symptoms of the disease. Nothing yet has been found to slow or stop the progression of the disease.

  • Taking small steps to implement healthy changes in daily life can make a big difference when it comes to brain health. When it comes to fitness, 20-30 minutes of exercise three to four times a week can make a difference.

Key quotes

  • On knowing what's "normal" and not for aging: "Alzheimer's disease and the memory loss that comes along with it is not a normal part of aging. So when you hear that 'Well, it's normal to forget.' No, it is not normal."

  • On the importance of taking preventative action: "We need to be prepared today. We know that there isn't any methods at all right now that prevent cure or even slow down the progression of Alzheimer's disease."

  • On the importance of physical activity: "Studies have shown, and most of the research is in exercise, that if you adopt one thing that I talk about today, it needs to be the exercise, that as we are increasing our cardiovascular system, that's going to assure that our brain stays healthier longer."

  • Foods that can help lead to a healthy brain: "Things that have shown to lead to healthy aging would be fruits and vegetables, and in particular green, leafy vegetables and berries, as well as limited intake of high fat food items that you get through high fat dairy and cheese and red meats."

  • On the importance of social engagement: "Some scientists say that the traits that enable people to build and maintain friendships act as a buffer against cognitive impairment. Regardless of the reason, we know that people don't do well in isolation."

  • On taking a comprehensive approach to aging: "We need to take a very holistic approach to aging. Considering health across many components, including physical, intellectual, social, spiritual, emotional and vocational areas of your life. And remember, it's never too early and it's never too late."
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