Advances in medical technology are keeping us alive longer than ever before.
That means more time with loved ones, more time to travel, more time to enjoy retirement. But the flip side of living longer is the risk of developing disease, and that includes dementia and Alzheimer's.
"More women have Alzheimer's than men," said Dennis J. Staker, an Ogden psychologist. "However, that is probably because they tend to live longer."
Alzheimer's is a progressive and fatal brain disease named after the German physician Alois Alzheimer, who discovered the illness in 1906. It is the most common form of dementia, a disease that affects memory, thinking, judgment and behavior.
Symptoms depend on which area of the brain is affected, but they can include memory loss, such as names and places that are familiar to you; forgetfulness of entire conversations; not being able to remember the names of common objects; getting lost in familiar places; not being able to follow directions; difficulty managing money and bills; difficulty walking, swallowing and speaking; and depression.
According to the National Alzheimer's Association, as many as 5.3 million Americans have the disease. In Utah, 32,000 people are living with the disease.
Scientists are still trying to determine the exact causes of the disease, but some say damage to the brain has likely been occurring long before the symptoms appear.
To date, no treatment is available to slow or stop the progress of Alzheimer's. However, there are five approved drugs that temporarily slow worsening of symptoms for six to 12 months in half of the people suffering from the disease, according to Alzheimer's Facts and Figures. Clinical trials on several therapies are currently being done on human volunteers, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
Reducing the risk
David R. Larsen, marriage, family and human development director of Advanced Memory Dynamics, a Layton company focused on dementia prevention, said research shows a connection with family history and genetics.
However, he said, there are other factors that may increase or reduce the risk.
"There are many common hazards in our environment that we ought to try to avoid, as well as common ailments that put us at risk," he said.
Larsen said many people are aware that auto exhaust and heavy metals like lead and mercury can cause brain damage.
However, he said, studies at the University of Utah's Center for Alzheimer's Care Imaging and Research have shown potential dangers to the brain may also lurk in paint solvents, heated plastics, pesticides, nitrates in lunch meats and partially hydrogenated oils found in peanut butter and cooking oils.
He said certain types of coconut oil have been shown to help reduce symptoms of Alzheimer's, according to Scientific References for Ketone Research.
In addition, Larsen said, uncontrolled diabetes, high blood pressure and abdominal obesity may all increase the risk for dementia.
Beware the claims
Dr. R. Chris Hammond, an Ogden neurologist, said the medical profession is beginning to understand the connection of vascular disease and Alzheimer's, but a cure and preventive treatment for the disease remains a long way out.
When individuals promise prevention and cures, one should always look at the source, he said.
"Everyone has something to sell and often do so effectively well on the desperate," he said. "I want to see validation with any claim. Well-designed research on potential therapies is expected, along with repeated tests showing the same results."
According to a report titled Discovery and Hope, released by the National Institutes of Health, National Institutes on Aging and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources in 2007, all of the aforementioned health issues may play a role in the development of Alzheimer's.
However, more studies are needed.
The Discovery and Hope report indicates that a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, a healthy diet, not smoking, adequate sleep and a strong social network can help people stay healthy as they get older.
"Most of us know exercise is good for our body, but how many realize that like sleep, it may be more important for the brain than the rest of the body?" Larsen said.
According to a study reported in the Jan. 17, 2006, issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, Larsen said, regular moderate exercise can reduce the risk of dementia by 30 percent to 40 percent. He said other studies have shown similar results.
"Then, last year in a University of California, San Francisco study reported at the International Conference on Alzheimer's in Vienna, it was revealed that even sedentary seniors who were experiencing some cognitive decline who began new aerobic exercise programs experienced improvements in cognitive function," Larsen said.
Staker said some studies have suggested that a low-fat diet rich in dietary antioxidants like vitamin C and E might help. Others have suggested that B vitamin deficiency may be related.
"There's also limited evidence that alcohol, especially red wine, may also help assist in the prevention of Alzheimer's, as well as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications and cholesterol-lowering medications known as statins," he said. "However, it doesn't appear these supplements and medications are helpful once a person develops Alzheimer's. The jury is still out on all of this."
Last year, Utah State University gained international attention with results from the DASH diet, which proved to be cognitively enhancing, Larsen and Staker said. Participants who followed the diet, which included whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean meat, fish and poultry, nuts, seeds and beans, fats and oils, and a limited amount of sweets and sodium, showed a longer period of mental sharpness over 11 years.
"Unfortunately, the diet is very difficult to follow and many participants did not do so," said Staker. "One cannot say for certain whether the diet was responsible for the results or whether those who adhered to it might simply have more healthy lifestyles."
Larsen said one or two healthy interventions alone are usually not enough to make a real difference in seniors. What is needed is a combination of a healthy diet and supplements, physical and mental exercise, healthy social interaction, sound sleep and stress management.
"All of these combined can make a significant difference," he said.
Hammond said the latest research is focused on understanding genetics and other factors associated with the disease, such as inflammatory markers. He said there are several potential treatments in the later stages of clinical trials.
For now, he said, people should continue interacting socially, challenging their minds with crossword puzzles and other mental games, and exercising three times a week for 20 to 30 minutes.