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Alzheimer's Prevention (or Lengthening Independent Living if You Already Have it)

Mona is a veteran writer, educator, and coach. She is presently affiliated with Enrich Magazine and Pressenza


Liza’s mother sits beside her for three hours, asking the same two questions over and over again: “What is your name?” and “Are you my daughter.” The repetition is persistent and without pause.

Liza’s mother has Alzheimer’s disease, the most commonly occurring form of dementia. Alzheimer’s impairs one’s memory so much that they have difficulty performing the normal tasks of daily life, such as cooking their famous casserole, or changing their own clothes.

Generally, Alzheimer’s is an elderly impairment. But there is also early-onset Alzheimer’s which occurs from ages 30-50. The Academy Award-winning movie, “Still Alice” is about early-onset Alzheimer’s, and it is based on the book of the same name, penned by Lisa Genova, who earned her neuroscience Ph.D. at Harvard University.


Cause of Alzheimer's

Alzheimer’s is different from age-related normal forgetfulness that comes with age. An example of age-related forgetfulness is forgetting where you left your iPhone. An example of Alzheimer’s is holding your iPhone in your hand and wondering what it is.

By age 85, one in three people is likely to have Alzheimer’s. The illness is caused by the build-up of two proteins in the brain, namely plaques (amyloid-beta) and tangles (tau). These two proteins multiply continually, killing healthy brain cells, and eventually causing death to the person.


Early Symptoms of Alzheimer’s

There is no cure for Alzheimer's, but if you recognize the symptoms early, you can get diagnosed and treated earlier, delaying worsening symptoms and lengthening your time of independent living.

Dr. Thomas Grabowski, director, Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, University of Washington, noted that after age 65 the incidence of Alzheimer's doubles every 5 years. By delaying its onset, the number of cases could be cut in half, along with dementia-related costs.


Early warning symptoms of Alzheimer’s are:

  1. Frustration with simple problems. Simple addition or subtraction problems may be easy for you, but the same problems may frustrate and stress your parent, even with a calculator.
  2. Leaving one’s eyeglasses in the freezer. Irrational behavior indicates the brain is no longer functioning at its peak.
  3. Avoiding group conversation. Maybe your parent used to love laughing and talking with friends, but lately, they become more solitary. This may be because it’s hard for them to follow a narrative or to find the words they need to express their thoughts.
  4. Avoiding work or hobbies. If your parent can’t finish work tasks as easily as before or avoids their favorite hobby, it may be time to consult a neurologist.
  5. Forgetting what they did an hour ago. If one’s short-term memory is compromised, this may indicate Alzheimer's.
  6. Being lost. Your parent is in a park that they frequent, but this time they don’t know where they are, or how they got there, putting your parent in danger.
  7. Personality Changes. Alzheimer's can make your parent confused, suspicious, or depressed. It can also make them get angry more easily.
  8. Poor judgment. If your parent stands on a corner and gives all their cash away to a stranger, this may be a sign of Alzheimer’s.
  9. Fading vision. A person may have trouble determining distance, spatial points, colors, or contrasts.

10. Trouble completing familiar tasks. Your parent needs to go to the bathroom but has trouble doing so because even if they are at home, they can’t remember where the bathroom is. Or, they can’t take short walks outside like before, because they easily feel lost and fearful.

Needless to say, some symptoms are scarier than others, so one’s best bet is to be alert and to bring your parent to a neurologist as early as possible.

Dendrites and neurons in the hippocampus, which play a major role in learning and memory.

Dendrites and neurons in the hippocampus, which play a major role in learning and memory.

Alzheimer’s prevention

  1. Sleep. Dr. Genova likens deep sleep to a power cleanse of the brain. Our glial cells clean out metabolic waste that was incurred while we were awake, such as amyloid-beta, one of two proteins in the brain that causes Alzheimer’s. Conversely, scientists agree that insomnia can be an indicator of possible Alzheimer’s in the future. It is like a nefarious cycle. One night without sleep increases amyloid-beta in your brain, and the increase makes it harder for you to sleep the following night as well, producing even more amyloid-beta. The sleepless nights and amyloid-beta production go on and on, like a loop. Sleeping well, for 7-8 hours a day provides enough time for glial cells to clear the brain of amyloid-beta.
  2. Do aerobics. Dr. Gad Marshall, Harvard Medical School assistant professor of neurology, said, "The most convincing evidence is that physical exercise helps prevent the development of Alzheimer's or slows the progression in people who have symptoms." Dr. Marshall recommends 30 minutes of moderately vigorous aerobic exercise, three to four days weekly.
  3. Address risky illnesses. Illnesses that increase the risk of Alzheimer’s include high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Smoking is also bad for your health and wellbeing. To prevent Alzheimer’s, practice healthy habits, and follow a healthy diet.
  4. Mediterranean diet. A 2013 study featured in the New England Journal of Medicine highlighted how a Mediterranean diet benefits the heart, even more than a low-fat diet. So stick to extra-virgin olive oil, and layer on the nuts, vegetables, seeds, legumes, fruits, potatoes, whole grains, fish, and seafood. This is because autopsy studies showed that up to 80 percent of people with Alzheimer's also had cardiovascular disease.
  5. Drink in moderation. Dr. Marshall says that wine, but not other forms of alcohol, “may be helpful, but this has not been proved." He recommends one glass of wine for women and no more than two glasses for men, per day.
  6. Mediterranean lifestyle. Make the effort to develop strong friendships, and have frequent social activities. Also, take time for regular outdoor activities.
  7. Learn new things. Dr. Genova says that people who are more educated, literate, and who continue to learn new things even up to old age either don’t have Alzheimer’s, or have longer independent living due to an abundance of reserve neural connections.
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Learn new things

To understand how this happens, we begin by knowing that Alzheimer's messages are passed through the brain by neurons. There is a small gap between these neurons called synapses, where the message passes through to the next neuron, from synapse to synapse.

However, when amyloid-beta accumulates in the synapses, it negatively affects the brain. Another nefarious protein, the tau protein, separates from microtubules and forms into tangles that block the transport of nutrients to neurons in the brain. In this way they kill the brain cells.

However, with learning and through neural plasticity, we create and strengthen new neural connections and new synapses. Through neural plasticity the brain creates many extra backup brain connections which serve as alternate paths to send information to other neurons and synapses.

The process was indicated in a study of 678 nuns, all over age 75, who agreed to donate their brains after they died. The nuns were examined every year. Upon death, it was noted that some of the nuns’ brains had plaques caused by groups of amyloid-beta clumping together, and tangles formed by tau. Brain shrinkage also indicated Alzheimer’s. However, in life, these nuns never displayed any behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer's.

Dr. Genova blames this on the presence of a larger number of functional synapses built by constantly feeding the brain with new things to learn. One other thing -- learning shouldn't be limited to what you already know. Learn something new, for example, read a book that teaches you something different from your usual fare. If you’re a boomer, read something about cryptocurrency. Or, if you have never been interested in outer space, listen to a TED talk about it. Another option is to learn a new language.

  1. Mindfulness meditation. Dr. Kristoffer Rhoads, Ph.D., Board Member of the Washington Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, says that mindfulness meditation can boost memory and improve brain connections in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and early-stage dementia.

In a study at UCLA, participants took an eight-week meditation course. Afterward, the participants were tested and there were indicators of improved overall health and resilience; less suffering, and improved mood and rational thinking.

Dr. Genova said, “mindfulness meditation likely holds value for preventing or delaying cognitive decline, as suggested by research showing rewiring of the brain, improved emotional resilience, and reduced modifiable midlife risk factors for Alzheimer's disease, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol.

“What’s more, researchers see these positive changes after eight weeks of guided practice in people with no prior history of meditation,” Dr. Genova said. If you want to try mindfulness meditation, you can easily find one on YouTube.

Still Alice | First 10 Minutes (2014)


Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on March 15, 2021:

Thank you Ms. Dora. Every time you visit I look at your picture and see that smile and that glow and it makes me happy to know that somewhere in the Caribbean, there is a woman who shines like a star.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on March 15, 2021:

Flourish Anyway, I'm so sorry that your grandmother died from dementia. Considering your love for music and your amazing name, it is very likely that your grandmother was equally amazing, and she passed this onto you. Thank you also for your very kind words. Your comment brought back to a lot of similar memories. It's amazing how you can touch a life oceans away because of what you say, I'm very grateful to have you in my life, even if it's just an online connection so many times it feels so real. Sensitivity is a wonderful thing.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on March 14, 2021:

Thanks especially for the prevention phase of this article. The whole article is educational.

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 14, 2021:

Well researched and written. My grandmother had dementia and frequently gave away money and identifying information on the phone to telemarketing hucksters who called and preyed on old people. Managing her finances was very difficult because she had access to a phone (although she often confused the tv remote for the phone). She would also express a lot of confusion but on rare occasions she'd be pretty clear-minded -- especially where details of her early life were concerned. She died in August. I'm sorry about your mother.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on March 12, 2021:

Thank you for your kind words, MG. My mother died of Alzheimer's and she was very much loved. If more people understand it, they, too can grow in love for their parents, come what may.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on March 12, 2021:

Very interesting article. It's a subject that has a lot of greys and it was nice reading your hub.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on March 12, 2021:

Hi Devika, thank you very much for visiting! as you say, prevention is better than cure. People should also be advised of all the options out there if they are afflicted with this disease.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on March 12, 2021:

grand old lady this is important and well-researched. I am enlightened by you of this health issue and you have written an interesting insight about Alzheimers. Prevention is better than having it and triying to cure it which is difficult or unlikely to happen.

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