When the well-known country rock singer-songwriter Glenn Campbell recently passed away, the media showed images of him later in life with a look of confusion and perhaps anxiety. Campbell suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and many of us have seen that look before, perhaps on our own loved ones. These are familiar signs of this debilitating ailment and the painful life consequences that it can generate.
But, while there is a certain sense of “familiarity” with the condition, how much do we really know about it? What is Alzheimer’s Disease? What is it’s connection to dementia? How does it work? And, perhaps most importantly, what can we do to limit our chances of getting it?
In 2015, there were approximately 46 million people known to be living with AD around the world. That figure is, of course, a reflection of cases we know about. It’s possible the figure is actually much higher, as statistics in countries with lesser health care monitoring and data collection may not know how many AD sufferers are included in their population.
What we do know
For a disease that is so widespread, and so commonly known, little is actually known about it.
What we do know is that it is a degenerative disease of the brain that usually afflicts those who are 65 years-old or more. In its initial stages, the disease may show as short-term memory loss—an inability to remember names or directions—and often deteriorates to erode sufferers’ ability to speak, become oriented or to self-motivate.
At its worst, AD leaves sufferers with severely limited cognitive and self-care abilities, and can even develop violent mood swings and anti-social behaviour.
AD is the most common cause of dementia, which has a range of emotional and physical impacts on both patients and their families.
What we don’t know
Beyond these broad facts, there is, unfortunately, a lot about AD we don’t know yet.
Head injuries or seemingly unconnected issues like high blood pressure may bring on the condition. But, such theories are just that; theories. As yet, we have no definitive causal relationship between AD and any known source or trigger.
It would seem that a genetic history of AD and/or dementia through the family offers signposts to an individual’s likelihood of contracting the disease. While genetic history may not be a direct cause, incidences of AD through a family tree may be an alarm to a greater possibility of developing the disease.
We also don’t know how to cure AD
While there are no standard or scientific means of stopping the disease, let alone ways of actually reversing it and curing its sufferers, all is not lost.
The best prevention, and perhaps even treatment, for AD may well be found not in medicine, but in lifestyle.
That is, it may be within reach of sufferers to actually prevent the onset of the disease through smart everyday choices.
Decreasing your chances of AD
The brain is like a muscle; the more you use it the stronger it becomes. And the stronger it gets the less chance there is of the brain’s circuitry becoming tangled and coated in the plaque that seems to bring on AD.
But evidence suggests that while physical exercise certainly isn’t wasted, mental stimulation may well be one of the secrets to avoiding a descent into AD and dementia.
So, as we head into our 40s, 50s and 60s, engaging in mental ‘calisthenics’ or a brain boot camp will very likely yield dividends in relation to avoiding AD. These may include:
- Learning a new language;
- Picking up a musical instrument;
- Reading, or
- Playing card games or chess.
These activities can all help to keep the brain active and can keep it from wasting away.
The brain can also be kept healthy by doing enjoyable work. This can even be considered after retirement (say as a mentor or volunteer) or, as some older folk have found, by looking after the grandkids.
Grey matter matters
While physical movement and activity is vital as we move into our older years, keeping our brains active is becoming just as important.
Finding ways to keep mentally alert and sharp now become something we all should be factoring into our regular lifestyle routines, if for no other reason than it has been shown to help limit our chances of contracting AD and dementia.
While it may be some time until we find out exactly how this awful disease is contracted and/or can be cured, a lifestyle that incorporates regular brain work looks to be one thing that can actually make a difference.