Continuing on the topic of Alzheimer’s Disease, another significant finding from the recent AAI Conference surrounds the influence of lifestyle factors on prevention and progression. An official press release cites a two-year clinical trial called the Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability (FINGER Study). The results of this work? Data collected from 1,260 older adults at risk for cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s showed that a combination of cognitive training, exercise, socialization, good nutrition and heart health management significantly improved cognitive performance on a variety of tests. So what can and should you be doing to keep your brain at its best?
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have found evidence that consuming either broiled or baked fish can benefit brain function. In fact, with weekly consumption, test subject grey matter volume was 14% higher in areas of the brain relating to cognition and 4.3% higher in those linked with memory. Here’s a delicious recipe for simple baked fish (the recipe calls for Tilapia but any mild fish will taste great!) Dark skinned fruits and vegetables, such as spinach, kale and blueberries, also have plenty of naturally occurring antioxidants and nuts can be a vital part of a brain healthy diet. Another strong link for protection against Alzheimer’s is vitamin E, found in vegetable oils, margarine, nuts (especially almonds), seeds (especially sunflower seeds), whole grains, egg yolk, and some fruits and vegetables.
Obesity has also been explicitly linked to Alzheimer’s development, in fact, research has shown that individuals who are in the obese weight range in their 40s and 50s will have twice the risk of developing Alzheimer’s in their 70s. Although scientists don't often agree on the mechanism with which the two factors are related, almost all do on the existence of link itself.
Physical exercise leads to increased blood flow to the brain and even moderate amounts have been shown to slow disease progression. A study, published in May, examined 100 older adults with a familial history of Alzheimer’s (many showing genes linked to the disease) who who were not currently showing symptoms. After 18 months brain scans were conducted and it was found that the hippocampus had undergone severe atrophy in those participants who did not exercise. The brains of those who remained physically active looked similar to those of healthy members of the population who were not at risk of the disease. Southern Nevada has a great variety of recreation opportunities for adults with a range of abilities and fitness levels, from walking programs to yoga and ballroom dancing to sit ‘n fit.
Studies have demonstrated that individuals that give their brain consistent workouts are less likely to suffer from cognitive decline than those who don’t. In fact, in one study, those who took part in regular brain training demonstrated improvements in brain function at the end of a six week period. The Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART) program is a further example of this success, having helped almost 30,000 individuals (from healthy teenagers to older adults at risk of Alzheimer’s) improve brain performance and reverse losses of cognition. This program uses a variety of strategies in order to build strategic thinking, reasoning and problem solving in the frontal lobe area of the brain. Interactive discussions, personal exploration and creative thinking are all key facets of the program. Brain blood flow increases of up to 12% have been reported.
The AARP website has some great online brain training tools, as well as a subscription Brain Fitness program. Seniors games has a variety of fun training games (the matchstick one is particularly tricky!), as well as informative articles. One study has even found that a lifetime of completing the daily crossword puzzle is enough to stave off the brain plaques associated with Alzheimer’s.
Socialization and Mental Health
Social networks protect cognitive function. Although scientists have yet to prove the causal link, there is evidence to strongly suggest that social stimulation benefits the brain. Isolation has been linked to depression and other mental illness, in babies it can even cause physical abnormalities, and yet older age is a time when many individuals withdraw from their social lives. A particularly fascinating study, examining fruit flies with a genetic mutation linked to Alzheimer’s in humans, has found that those flies left in the company of younger healthier members of the species lived over twice as long as those who were kept alone.
Whether it’s taking part in weekly group exercise sessions or joining a book club, socialization is vital in keeping your brain working at its optimum level.
Another factor not mentioned in the study but of increasing interest in recent weeks, is the nature of the link between depression and dementia. Although the two have been linked consistently in the past, new research proposes that depression may actually be an independent risk factor rather than simply an associated symptom. Although further work needs to be conducted, were it be conclusively found that treating depression can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, this would be a significant medical breakthrough. For this reason and many others, it is very important that signs of mental health issues are taken seriously, closely monitored and promptly treated.
Heart Health Management
Around 20% of your blood is pumped from your heart to your brain, so it's not surprising that more and more research links heart disease with decreased cognitive function. Scientists have linked artery stiffness, a symptom of poor heart health, with the amyloid plaque build-up found in Alzheimer’s sufferers. It has been hypothesized that when the brain receives insufficient blood flow to function normally, cognitive decline will follow. In fact, decreased cerebral blood flow has been identified in patients prior to the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms and medications to improve flow have resulted in improved cognitive functioning in some adults.
How can you keep your heart healthy? Diet, exercise and maintaining a healthy weight, as already mentioned, are vital. Keeping stress levels low and not smoking will also help in keeping blood pressure and cholesterol at safe levels. Finally, regular check-ups to identify heart health issues, and closely monitoring blood pressure and blood sugar levels are vital components of this preventative measure.