What's good for your heart is good for your brain. Experts say exercise and a healthy diet are two essential tools to reducing your chances of developing Alzheimer's disease, a progressive and eventually fatal condition that destroys brain cells and causes memory loss.
Local neurologist Dr. Mazzeo said one in eight people age 65 have Alzheimer's disease, and the chances steadily increase with age. Fifty percent of people have the disease when they reach about 85 years old, he said.
"It's actually more common than not to have Alzheimer's over the age of 85," Mazzeo said. "That doesn't necessarily mean you're debilitated from it."
Mazzeo said a study of people with mild clinical Alzheimer's showed all of them had moderate to severe brain changes evident of Alzheimer's, meaning the brain can absorb a huge burden of the disease before a person starts deteriorating. In other words, people who are thought to have only mild symptoms of Alzheimer's probably are in a more advanced stage than others realize.
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STAY ACTIVE, EAT RIGHT
Mazzeo said by following The Mediterranean Diet you can reduce your chances of developing the debilitating disease by 40 percent. The diet includes a lot of fruits and vegetables, olive oil and a little bit of alcohol. Be warned, though: Too much alcohol can increase your chances of developing dementia. He said if you couple the diet with an exercise plan, it reduces your risk by 67 percent.
People who have a strong family history of Alzheimer's should especially follow these guidelines. Mazzeo said they also should take vitamins D and B12 since studies have shown people with low levels of these vitamins have an increased risk of developing the disease. And people who are at risk for stroke also are at risk for Alzheimer's. So if your cholesterol is too high, you are overweight, have diabetes or hypertension, then you are more likely to get Alzheimer's.
Mazzeo said there's also evidence that staying mentally and socially active has a protective effect on the brain. He said social programs, such as the ones offered by Memory Matters on Hilton Head Island and Alzheimer's Family Services of Greater Beaufort, are great for people suffering from dementia because they keep them mentally active.
On a recent Friday afternoon at Memory Matters about 20 participants of the organization's social day program were moving and grooving to the music of Dale and The Boys. The program is offered five days a week to people suffering from memory loss.
"They probably won't remember much of the day," Memory Matters assistant director Karen Doughtie said. "What they do remember is that they had fun. ... Their short-term memory is gone, but they do remember they had a good time, and that's what's important."
Memory Matters also offers a program called Brain Boosters for people concerned about changes in their memory. Doughtie said participants meet once a week for eight weeks to engage in memory games and learn how diet and exercise play a role in protecting the brain.
The national Alzheimer's Association pushes the same idea with its "Maintain Your Brain" program, which encourages people, especially those about age 65, to do simple things such as socialize and do crossword puzzles or Sudoku to prevent memory loss.
DETECTION AND TREATMENT
Recognizing the signs of the disease and getting an early diagnosis are key to functioning at the highest level for as long as possible. Mazzeo said signs include a decline in short-term memory and difficulty finding the right words when speaking.
"People assume that that's just a normal thing to have occur as you get older, but that's not the case," Mazzeo said. "Your memory really shouldn't decline as you age. Now your memory may change -- you may become more focused on certain information that's essential ... but you shouldn't start forgetting things simply because you're getting older."
Mazzeo said four medications are primarily used in the treatment of Alzheimer's, and those who take them usually improve for about six months to a year, particularly if they are diagnosed early in the progression of the disease. Even with the medication patients will worsen over time but do much better cognitively than people who take no medication.
Most importantly, Mazzeo said people with Alzheimer's who take medication are able to continue their normal activities of daily living. They are able to stay in their homes or function in an assisted living facility longer than those who do not take the medication.
"People are always worried about cognition, but what's really important is -- can you do your day-to-day activities?" Mazzeo said. "What is more important -- that you remember what you had for breakfast or that you can make your own breakfast?"
As far as a cure for Alzheimer's, Mazzeo said there are more than 100 medications in development now.
"And some of them look very promising," he said. "It's a focus of intense research right now."