New research into aging and brain function offers hope that managing certain health and lifestyle factors may postpone or prevent Alzheimer's Disease.
Is aging gracefully possible in a time when the rate of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is significantly increasing? Researchers like Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging and organizations like The National Institute on Aging indicate that managing risk factors and personal habits may not only be the key to improving memory, but can have lasting effects and reduce the odds of developing serious brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. Here are several areas where research is ongoing.
Heart Disease, Blood Pressure and Diabetes
Studies suggest elements of heart disease like high levels of blood cholesterol and homocysteine, an amino acid which in large amounts can make neurons stop working and die, may contribute to the development of AD.
High blood pressure can damage blood vessels in the brain and reduce the brain’s oxygen supply and may increase the risk of AD by disrupting nerve cell circuits that are thought to be important to decision-making, memory, and verbal skills.
Evidence is mounting that type 2 diabetes and AD share several characteristics, and that abnormal glucose and insulin regulation takes a toll on brain health by encouraging inflammation and the inefficient use of oxygen in the body.
While scientists suspect that inflammatory and chemical fluctuations in the body may contribute to the development of AD, the impact of nutrition and supplements in the prevention of AD is unknown. Trials are ongoing to determine if therapy with antioxidants, anti-inflammatory drugs, estrogen, natural supplements, or even vaccinations to reduce the formation of plaque in the brain may impact the onset of AD.
Stimulating Social and Intellectual Activity
Numerous studies have shown that being socially engaged and keeping the brain active, not only throughout one’s lifetime, but by adding these elements in later life, improves memory and slows cognitive decline. The maintenance of relationships and participation in many social activities has been linked to decreased incidence of dementia, and challenging and novel mental activity is known to encourage regeneration of brain cells.
"The brain is a learning machine, and like all machines it needs to be continually maintained," says Michael Merzenich, a professor emeritus at the University of California at San Francisco.
"If you stop exercising the brain -- and this is what often happens during retirement -- then you shouldn't be surprised when it starts to die off." A variety of brain health programs are springing up to teach people healthier brain habits.
Physical exercise does as much for the brain as the body, according to recent population studies, and may stave off AD. "Regular physical exercise is probably the best means we have of preventing Alzheimer's disease today," said Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the Alzheimer's Research Center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Scientists believe that physical activity improves blood flow to the brain and activates cellular mechanisms that improve brain function
Studies of individuals with a history of major depression show they were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease as those without past depression. Researchers hypothesize that depression may increase AD risk by overstressing the brain’s complex memory, feedback and reaction system or by exposing it to excessive amounts of the hormone glucocorticoid, causing brain cell damage and perhaps susceptibility to Alzheimer's.
New research offers hope that managing medical conditions and lifestyle factors that affect the brain may not only prevent the development of brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, but could help mitigate the emotional, physical and financial fallout that entire families endure as a result of AD. Getting older may be inevitable, but the onset of degenerative brain disorders may be more preventable than ever.
Feature Image credit: healthaim.com
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About author- Rogers Meredith- a registered nurse and a health writer from Geriatricnursing.org