Summer 2020 will certainly go down as a memorable year! I think we are all going a little crazy after some 4 months of isolation and health precautions for COVID-19. June is, quite fortuitously, National Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month in the U.S.
Dementia is one of the more frightening concerns for our adult population. In Washington state, there are an estimated 120,000 persons diagnosed with Alzheimer’s dementia, and this number is expected to increase to 140,000 by 2025. In addition, there are multiple types of dementia other than Alzheimer’s – including vascular dementia (often associated with diabetes or hypertension), dementia with Lewy Bodies, Parkinson’s dementia, and frontotemporal dementia. In the U.S., some $305 billion dollars are spent yearly dealing with the direct costs of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. There is also the cost to caregivers – their stress levels, sleep, emotional health, and quality of life. It is a major concern in our society.
What can one do to prevent dementia? It would certainly be wonderful if we could take a medication and prevent having to go down that road, but unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. There are lots of advertised supplements, for the most part poorly researched, that claim to prevent dementia. Research has shown that Omega-3s and most vitamins are not preventative. Vitamin E might slow functional decline in those with Alzheimer’s, but it also interacts with multiple medications (including blood thinners, simvastatin, niacin, and chemotherapy) and may increase the risk of prostate cancer. Curcumin (Tumeric) has not been well studied but has shown limited influence on cognition, mood, and quality of life in Alzheimer’s disease over short periods. Ginko Biloba appears to be helpful in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or Alzheimer’s but is apparently ineffective in preventing dementias. There have been some early positive results with coconut oil, but so far very little additional research has been done. It does appear statin medications reduce the overall risk of dementia, but it is unclear if this holds up specifically to treat or prevent dementia. There are some medications that can help slow the progress of various dementias – specific to the type of disease one is suffering, but none is effective for prevention.
The good news is that there appears to be the ability to delay or prevent multiple cases of dementia with risk factor modification. HEALTHY LIVING, especially during the midlife years (45-65), appears to delay or prevent a substantial number of cases. That means to control Diabetes and keep blood pressure and cholesterol levels optimal (talk to your Provider!). Physical activity, exercise, cognitive leisure activities (though the studies do not show much change with this long term), and social interaction have an inverse effect on developing dementia in observational studies (In other words – they help!). Community engagement can result in improved health and health behaviors, improved quality of life, and mental well-being (according to research)!
So how do we do these things amid a pandemic? It has been shown that WALKING 10-20 minutes each day is enough exercise to impact your risk, so hit the parks and trails or even the neighborhood (masked and/or 6ft apart!) Look to spend some of that excess “leisure time” in expanding your mind – take up a hobby, read, do puzzles/word games/number games – keep mentally active. Social interaction? Though this is limited by restrictions, it is not cut off! Facetime and Zoom and other social media platforms as well as sending cards and letters keep you in contact with others and helps them (particularly isolated elderly persons) as well. Joining others in community projects such as sewing masks, cleaning the neighborhood, participating in faith-based community projects (socially distanced) all have shown health benefits. At our office, we have benefitted from a church group and a business group providing home-sewn masks – a much needed and appreciated activity!
How appropriate that in helping others, we actually do help ourselves maintain healthy brains!
Mary Hutton Eyer, A.R.N.P.