Alzheimer’s disease, the dreaded destroyer of memory, doesn’t happen all at once. Like heart disease and many other serious ailments, it’s years in the making.
Everyday you can choose to take steps to lower your risk for developing MCI and Alzheimer’s disease. Read on to learn what works.
Beat the Odds
Only recently have medical researchers nailed down the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s. People who have a condition known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which marks the transitional stage between normal aging and dementia, are highly likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
According to a Mayo Clinic Study, 15% of those with MCI develop Alzheimer’s one year later, compared to 1%-2% of those without MCI. Within four years, 50% of people with MCI will have Alzheimer’s; after five years or longer, it’s 80%-90%. It’s unknown whether this downward spiral can be stopped, but there is reason to be hopeful. After all, 10%-20% of people who have MCI do not fall victim to Alzheimer’s. So obviously there is something that protects them in all of this.
A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that staying mentally active, exercising regularly and eating well can help preserve memory – and slow or perhaps even halt the progression of MCI.
Normal Aging or MCI?
People with MCI have the same kind of lapses in short-term memory – forgetting facts, names, appointments, etc. – that most of us experience as we progress in age through our 50s, 60s and beyond, but many more such instances. They still remember how to perform everyday activities, such as driving, reading, typing and cooking. Their ability to reason, solve math problems and control emotions also is left intact.
A key criterion for identifying MCI is “subjective” memory loss – that is, the person notices the lapses and thinks that they are troublesome and too frequent. Still, people differ widely in their sensitivity to their own memory performance. Often, friends and family become aware of memory problems before the person experiencing them does. One of the best indicators for MCI is a person’s performance on memory tests, administered by a neurologist, psychologist or geriatrician.
Brain to Spare
MCI progresses to Alzheimer’s disease when enough brain cells are affected so seriously that the brain fails to function properly. The more densely interconnected your brain cells are, the greater your “brain reserve.” This allows your brain to keep on working well even if some cells have been affected.
Researchers now know that new synapses – connections between brain cells – can be formed throughout life. Mental activity builds synapses the same way physical activity builds muscle. If you are concerned about your memory, it’s critical to challenge your mind.
For your own self defense, spend at least an hour a day performing rigorous mental activity. Read books on subjects that demand concentration, do crossword puzzles at a level you find difficult, take an adult education course in a new discipline, work conscientiously to master a foreign language, etc.
You Can Stop Mental Decline
Mental activity is only part of the story. The same lifestyle and diet changes that are recommended to reduce the risk for heart attack, cancer and other serious diseases maximize brain reserve as well by maintaining brain cells and stimulating the connections between them.
– Exercise everyday, as this keeps brain cells well nourished and supplied with enough oxygen to survive and thrive. Activities like ballroom dancing or learning a new sport, which challenge both the mind and body, are excellent choices.
– Limit calories to slow the aging process. The natural process by which the body converts food into energy causes free radicals, so the more you eat, the more toxicity is released into the body. Eat less to allow your body the chance to fight back and destroy those damaging free radicals.
– Eat more fruits, veggies and fish. Fruits and veggies are rich in antioxidants, which go after free radicals and destroy them, so disease is stopped before it can start. Fish contains omega-3 fatty acids, which are known brain boosters – but they also protect the heart.
– Consult your doctor for brain-protecting, anti-inflammatory medications, which may also defend against MCI and Alzheimer’s.