If you misplace your wallet or are startled when you can't instantly recall the name of the neighbor down the street, do you start to worry that your temporary memory loss is something ominous?
While Alzheimer's disease is a stark reality for the more than five million people currently living with the disease, most people who have those slight blips in memory are not showing early signs of the disease. But because the risk for Alzheimer's increases with age, doing what you can now to protect your brain health is always a good idea.
Here's the good news: current research shows promising results and potential, says Dr. Steven Arnold of the Massachusetts General Hospital Memory Disorders Unit. “There have been a lot of frustrations over the years," he says, “but there are new discoveries and new tools. I am more optimistic than I have ever been."
Alzheimer's disease is caused when amyloid plaques build up in the brain, robbing the person of memory and often the ability to perform tasks for living like eating, bathing, and moving around. As the disease progresses, a protein we all have, called tau, begins to clump up. These clumps, called tau tangles, are more difficult to treat and are more closely accelerated with decline, says Arnold.
Promising research focuses on stopping the ameloyd plaques from building up. “If we do that we might be able to prevent it from starting," says Arnold. Medications are now coming into clinical trials that are targeting tau tangles, so that even if Alzheimer's has been diagnosed, therapies can stop it from spreading.
There are some things you can do now that can help slow the process of your brain aging and may lower the risk of Alzheimer's.
Staying physically active in a way that meets your own physical ability is probably the most important thing you can do to protect your brain health, says Arnold. “There's cognitive stimulation, physical exercise, social engagement, and nutrition. Of those, physical exercise is the best." Walk, swim, lift light weights, golf, or garden. Anything that keeps your body healthy has a similar effect on the brain.
Those crossword puzzles and Sudoku books many seniors keep on hand to help exercise their brains are a good start because they force your brain to do new things. (GreatCall's easy to use phones, the Jitterbug Smart and Jitterbug Flip, both offer Brain Games to help keep your mind active). Performing new tasks or old tasks in a new way, or learning about new subjects keeps your mind busy, working, and strong.
And of all the things you can do—whether that's taking a new class or taking a walk—doing it with someone else expands the benefits. Isolation doesn't help your brain at all. In fact, studies show that social activities enrich your life right now, but also offer real protection for your brain health. Why? The benefits of social relationships impact everything from your heart health to depression.
If you or someone you know is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, acknowledge your apprehension, but remember there are still things that might help slow the disease's progression.
Find a good physician who is experienced in Alzheimer's and can help guide you to the latest approaches and medications. While research is underway on exciting new medications, there are only a few medications physicians routinely use to treat Alzheimer's right now.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, patients can take medications that help with the disease's hallmarks of memory loss and confusion. In the early stages of Alzheimer's, drugs called cholinesterase inhibitors can help delay the progression of the disease in about half of the people who take it. These drugs include Aricept, Exelon, or Razadyne.
People with more advanced stages of Alzheimer's can take a mematine called Namenda which acts in a similar way to help boost brain activity and can delay worsening of symptoms.
Advocating for Alzheimer's research can bring attention to the need for funding. Many experts say the key to Alzheimer's work is the information they get from real people. “There's nothing we can do unless people participate in clinical trials," says Arnold. You can join a study like the ones at Mass General or find one through the Alzheimer's Association's Trial Match.
The studies are entirely voluntary and patients are fully informed along the entire length of the trial. And although you won't know if you are getting a cutting-edge medication or a placebo, you will know you are contributing to the next steps of Alzheimer's research.
“The larger issue is if you want to do anything for your children, this is what you can do," says Arnold.