Alzheimer's dementia affects more than 5 million Americans and is our sixth leading cause of death. But unlike other leading killers-heart disease, stroke, diabetes and a number of cancers-there is no medication to help cure, prevent or slow down its progression. This fact may be a key reason approximately 45 percent of Medicare patients who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's are not informed of the diagnosis by their physician.
That is why there has been so much buzz and excitement the past few weeks about two new promising treatments that may be in the pipeline within the next several years: a noninvasive ultrasound technique and an antibody that can attack the plaques responsible for the disease.
Dementia results when nerve cells in our brain die or no longer function normally. Because our brain is responsible for thinking, memory and everything from walking, chewing food and dressing ourselves, every single one of these functions can become affected.
While we will be carefully tracking these developments in hopes that they will one day provide a cure for Alzheimer's dementia, there are things we can (and I believe, must) do today to fend off and slow down this debilitating and fatal disease.
What you need to know to help prevent, slow down and possibly reverse Alzheimer's symptoms, today.
1. Regular exercise can protect against Alzheimer's dementia by up to 60 percent, and it can even slow down further deterioration in those who already have it. Just like our biceps, abdominal and heart muscles benefit from physical activity, so does our brain. A world of good can come to us when we exercise just 150 minutes a week, the approximate length of a movie.
Some tips include starting off slowly, even 10 minutes at a time; doing an activity we enjoy such as walking, swimming laps, bicycling, playing tennis, gardening or jogging; breaking up activity throughout the day; or making it a group activity with family and friends.
2. A "brain healthy" eating plan provides our noggin with the right balance of vitamins, nutrients, fiber and antioxidants while avoiding saturated fats and cholesterol. In order for our brain to remain in tip-top condition, we need to provide the best fuel possible. Brain healthy eating should be thought of as a lifelong marathon, not a sprint.
3.Mental stimulation, "use-it-or-lose-it," mental aerobics. Whatever we may want to call it, 'exercising' our mind is like depositing money in a savings account in anticipation of a rainy day. Consider learning something new like a language, skill or hobby, or studying a period in history we have been curious about. People who play games such as puzzles, crosswords, cards and checkers at least every other day have been shown to maintain sharper thinking skills and a decreased risk for developing Alzheimer's.
4. Quality sleep. Research has shown that when young and middle-aged adults suffer from insomnia, they increase their risk for developing Alzheimer's down the road. Not getting enough sleep can increase a protein known as amyloid beta that is found in Alzheimer's. On the other hand, good quality sleep allows our brains to rest and rejuvenate. This equates to memory consolidation, much like our computers do when we back them up. Let's follow proper sleep hygiene - the rituals and routines that we undergo, much like getting a baby to fall asleep.
5. Active social life. Having friends allows us to share our joys and sorrows, exchange ideas and advice, and celebrate. However, as we age, our children leave our homes and we retire from the work force. This can make it difficult to maintain an active social life. Consider volunteering at a charitable organization, join a club or social group, meet your neighbors, call friends on the phone or email, or take a group class at the gym or community college.
6. Protect our brain. Both smoking and heavy alcohol consumption have been linked to higher rates of Alzheimer's dementia. Additionally, traumatic brain injury can change the chemistry of the brain, including protein abnormalities, that are linked with Alzheimer's.
While we hope and wait for a cure for this devastating disease - that impacts not just the patient, but their loved ones - these proven lifestyle changes can keep our brain cells healthy and functioning longer, even in those already diagnosed with Alzheimer's. If you or a loved one has concerns, talk to a physician about Alzheimer's and go to