Can you sidestep Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer's disease is characterized by progressive damage to nerve cells and their connections. The result is devastating and includes memory loss, impaired thinking, difficulties with verbal communication, and even personality changes. A person with Alzheimer's disease may live anywhere from two to 20 years after diagnosis. Those years are spent in an increasingly dependent state that exacts a staggering emotional, physical, and economic toll on families.
A number of factors influence the likelihood that you will develop Alzheimer's disease. Some of these you can't control, such as age, gender, and family history. But there are things you can do to help lower your risk. As it turns out, the mainstays of a healthy lifestyle — exercise, watching your weight, and eating right — appear to lower Alzheimer's risk.
5 steps to lower Alzheimer's risk
While there are no surefire ways to prevent Alzheimer's, by following the five steps below you may lower your risk for this disease — and enhance your overall health as well.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Cut back on calories and increase physical activity if you need to shed some pounds.
- Check your waistline. To accurately measure your waistline, use a tape measure around the narrowest portion of your waist (usually at the height of the navel and lowest rib). A National Institutes of Health panel recommends waist measurements of no more than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men.
- Eat mindfully. Emphasize colorful, vitamin-packed vegetables and fruits; whole grains; protein sources such as fish, lean poultry, tofu, and beans and other legumes; plus healthy fats. Cut down on unnecessary calories from sweets, sodas, refined grains like white bread or white rice, unhealthy fats, fried and fast foods, and mindless snacking. Keep a close eye on portion sizes, too.
- Exercise regularly. This simple step does great things for your body. Regular physical activity helps control weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. Moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise (walking, swimming, biking, rowing) can also help chip away total body fat and abdominal fat over time. Aim for 2 1/2 to 5 hours weekly of brisk walking (at 4 mph). Or try a vigorous exercise like jogging (at 6 mph) for half that time.
- Keep an eye on important health numbers. In addition to watching your weight and waistline, ask your doctor whether your cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and blood sugar are within healthy ranges. Exercise, weight loss if needed, and medications (if necessary) can help keep these numbers on target.
For more on ways to help prevent Alzheimer's as well as information on diagnosing and treating it, buy Alzheimer's Disease: A guide to diagnosis, treatment, and caregiving, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.
Alzheimer's guide: Protect your loved one from wandering
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One of the most dangerous and distressing symptoms of Alzheimer's is wandering. It may seem unfathomable that a person might suddenly get up at night to go to the post office or leave home at any hour for no apparent reason. But wandering may be prompted by deep-seated memories of work, chores, or hobbies, or a longing to return to a former home.
The inability to control wandering is what often drives families to decide to place a loved one in a nursing home. However, there are some simple measures to prevent wandering that often work well for a time and can even help postpone that difficult decision.
The Alzheimer's Association recommends these steps:
- Install slide bolts at the top or bottom of doors.
- Place warning bells on doors.
- Camouflage doorknobs by covering them with cloth of the same color as the doors. Consider childproof knobs, too.
- Camouflage doors by painting them the same shade as surrounding walls.
- Create a two-foot black threshold in front of doors with paint or tape. (A rug might do the job, too.) This creates the illusion of a gap or hole that a person with limited visual spatial abilities may be reluctant to cross.
In addition to these preventive measures, you'll want to take some additional precautions so you're prepared if wandering does occur.
- Keep a recent, close-up photograph available, both print and digital. This is very helpful should the worst occur and your loved one leave the house unexpectedly.
- Keep a written list of places that he or she might go, such as church or a favorite restaurant, job site, or previous home. The Alzheimer's Association notes that wandering generally follows the direction of a person's dominant hand — to the right if right handed, or the left if left handed.
- Post emergency numbers in a handy spot.
- Buy identification jewelry engraved with "memory impaired" and the person's name, address, and phone number. You might also consider Safe Return programs that offer a bracelet or pendant with a toll-free emergency response number that you — or anyone who finds the wanderer — can call 24 hours a day. Response line personnel alert police and a personal contact list.
- A high-tech option uses GPS and cell towers to provide an approximate location for a person who might wander. Depending on the level of need, families might request an alert if the person wearing the locator device leaves a specified zone, or they might tap into the system only in case of emergency.
For more on diagnosing and treating Alzheimer's, buy Alzheimer's Disease: A guide to diagnosis, treatment, and caregiving from Harvard Medical School.
|•||What is Alzheimer’s disease?|
|•||Is it forgetfulness or dementia?|
|•||Recognizing the symptoms|
|•||How the brain works|
|•||Risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease|
|•||... and more!|
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