Can you remember your favorite Christmas gift as a child? Mine was a Malibu Barbie playhouse that Santa brought when I was nine years old. I played with that dollhouse every day that year. I still remember how it was decorated with pink and yellow flowers and the plastic toy furniture that cluttered its rooms. The holiday season can be stuffed full of joyful times spent making memories that can last a lifetime, like my dollhouse memories. Dementia in older age can prevent us from reminiscing about past holiday joys, and eventually rob us or loved ones of the ability to communicate, make new memories, and perform even the simplest everyday functions. So how do we keep the holiday memories that we hope to cherish for many years when statistics tell us that the risk of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease is close to 50% after the age of 85? Currently, there are an estimated 5.7 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease and 50 million people worldwide with this condition. What can we do to lower our risk while researchers look for a cure?
Researchers in Finland believe that lifestyle can impact memory and brain health, and have influenced local scientists at Wake Forest Medical School and associated healthcare centers to explore how reversible risk factors, like physical activity, can impact dementia. They report in Vital News (Fall/Winter 2019), the newsletter for the Sticht Center for Healthy Aging and Alzheimer’s Prevention, that one third of Alzheimer’s disease cases worldwide are related to physical activity, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, depression, and lack of education on risk factors. They are looking at combinations of healthy diet, physical activity, social activities, and mental challenges to see which ones can positively impact disease course and progression. The Vital News newsletter lists numerous Wake Forest, Sticht Center, and other local institutions’ studies and how to volunteer as a participant.
While researchers continue to investigate interventions and possible cures for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, current evidence supports regular physical activity and exercise that meets the recommended 150-300 minutes/week of aerobic exercise, strength training, and for added measure, some balance training. Practice aerobic exercise that increases blood flow to the brain. Stop smoking, treat any diagnoses of diabetes or depression, be social, and lose weight. While there is no guarantee (yet) that these changes will prevent the onset of dementia, they can certainly improve overall health and decrease the overall risk of suffering a cognitive decline in older age. Talk to your primary care provider about these lifestyle changes and potential referrals to members of your healthcare team that can help implement safe and effective changes. A physical therapist can design safe and effective exercise programs and provide education on how to progress through that program. Making some (or several) of these lifestyle changes is a promising step toward helping your brain hold on to and share cherished memories for as long as possible. I hope to remember Malibu Barbie for years, and maybe even play with a Barbie with my future great-grandchildren!