Researchers regularly discover new information about how the brain functions. Still, brain scientists admit that their understanding is limited.
The brain is remarkably complex. Neurons — the primary functional brain cell — communicate with other cells by releasing chemicals known as neurotransmitters into synapses. The brain consists of 86 billion neurons and nearly a quadrillion synapses.
The difficulty of understanding such a complex organ explains the slow progress of Alzheimer’s research. Alzheimer’s is a disease that destroys memory and impairs cognitive skills. The disease causes neurons to lose their connections to other neurons. Affected neurons die, causing the brain to shrink. Other changes to the brain include “abnormal buildups of proteins that form amyloid plaques and tau tangles.”
Statistically, about 1 in 9 Americans over the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s. That amounts to 6.5 million Americans in that age group who are living with Alzheimer’s. That number is expected to exceed 12 million in 2050 in the absence of a medical breakthrough that cures or prevents the disease.
Genetics and Alzheimer’s
Certain genetic variants are associated with an increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s. While the disease tends to run in families, some people who have a family history of Alzheimer’s never develop the disease, while others are the first in their family to acquire it.
Although genetic variants may contribute to risk, genes that directly cause Alzheimer’s are present in only 1% of patients who acquire the disease. Alzheimer’s with a clear genetic cause tends to develop in middle age, while the overwhelming majority of Alzheimer’s cases develop much later in life.
Since scientists cannot define the causes of Alzheimer’s with certainty, they cannot be sure that any measures will prevent the disease from developing. Still, by comparing older people who develop Alzheimer’s to those who do not, scientists are able to suggest lifestyle changes that might reduce the risk of acquiring Alzheimer’s.
The preliminary findings of a study that followed thousands of American women for twenty years suggest that the risk factors for developing dementia are similar to the risk factors for developing heart disease. A healthy lifestyle is the best safeguard against diseases of the heart and mind.
The study’s definition of a healthy lifestyle is not surprising:
- Stay active by exercising regularly.
- Eat a healthy diet.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Don’t smoke.
- Keep your blood pressure within a normal range.
- Regulate your cholesterol intake.
- Keep your blood sugar at an acceptable level.
An epidemiologist who worked on the study stressed the importance of making those lifestyle changes in middle age. Since changes in the brain that scientists associate with dementia begin decades before symptoms appear, carrying a healthy lifestyle into senior years is the best way to protect against Alzheimer’s. Having said that, it’s never too late to enjoy the advantages healthy living.
Chinese researchers recently arrived at a similar conclusion. They found that a healthy lifestyle slowed the rate of memory decline and reduced the risk of dementia. The Chinese study added social activity (such as playing cards) to the list of healthy behaviors that seemed to be beneficial.
Several studies suggest that keeping the mind active builds reserves of healthy brain cells and synapses. Exercising the brain appears to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Learning new things, puzzle solving, and artistic creation may be a safeguard against cognitive decline. Brain exercises might also slow the development of Alzheimer’s in patients who are showing early symptoms.