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Diet and exercise one-two punch against Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. Just the thought of contracting this disease — which can rob us of our ability to think, learn and remember and can eventually steal from us our very sense of self — is fear-inducing. The best way to overcome the fear and uncertainty associated with Alzheimer’s is to take protective steps that might spare us from getting the disease.

It’s time we take control of what we can control. As I said last week, we should follow this prescription as if our lives depended upon it. In relation to Alzheimer’s, let us focus on exercise and diet. There is good news for us to be found here.

It is well known by science that regular exercise helps maintain brain function. New research presented at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society’s 2019 annual meeting also shows that brain activity increases and memory improves immediately after a single short bout of exercise.

Following that lead, researchers at the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the Wake Forest School of Medicine have begun prescribing exercise as if it were a drug in a study that aims to see if exercise can prevent Alzheimer’s. Scientific evidence building over the last 20 years suggests that exercise at the right intensity can protect brain health as we age.

Howard Feldman — a professor of neuroscience at the University of California San Diego and director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study, a consortium overseeing this ongoing study — says that even if the study fails to preserve memory, participants are benefiting from it.

“You’re invoking optimism, you’re invoking hope, you’re touching on collegiality, you’re creating a peer group for people,” Feldman tells NPR.

We have known for some time that older adults generally don’t eat as well as they should. According to new research published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, approximately 1 in 10 older adults also engage in binge drinking, putting them at greater risk for falls and other medical problems.

Overmedication has also been identified as a common problem and a growing health hazard for older adults. It’s normal for more than one doctor to see an older patient with multiple health issues, and each doctor might prescribe a different drug for a different illness. But as we age, we become increasingly sensitive to drugs’ side effects.

Leah Rorvig — a geriatrician and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco — says while older adults are sometimes prescribed proton-pump inhibitors to treat heartburn, this type of medication can weaken the bones, which puts older people at a higher risk for falls and fractures.

An August report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that nearly a third of American adults ages 60 to 79 used five or more prescription drugs in the past 30 days. The more prescription drugs you take the higher your risk for adverse reactions.

Although many older adults do need to take multiple prescription drugs, this is not always the case for every patient. Preliminary research shows that de-prescribing may reduce cognitive decline. And treatments other than drugs may be good alternatives for some conditions.

At the very least, more care and effort is needed in assessing and managing older adults’ prescription drug use. It’s recommended that older adults and their caregivers check the Beers Criteria, a publication by the American Geriatrics Society that lists medications that are potentially inappropriate for most older adults.

It’s also time we start to think about food as fuel. According to the International Food Information Council, of Americans in fair or poor health, 30 percent say they often choose less-healthy options due to cost. Yet, it is possible to shop for healthy foods when you are on a budget. Buying organic is more than just a passing fad; it is one of the fastest-growing segments of American agriculture. We cannot lose sight of the health benefits of buying fresh, pesticide-free food.

For example, a recent study in Nature Communications shows that consuming flavonoids, a large class of nutrients found in plant foods, may reduce the risk for cancer and cardiovascular death. Good sources of flavonoids include tea, chocolate, red wine, citrus fruits, berries, apples and broccoli. One cup of tea, one apple, one orange and 3 1/2 ounces each of blueberries and broccoli would supply more than 500 milligrams of total flavonoids.

As pointed out last week, scientists at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that people who reported healthier lifestyles overall — who stuck to a low-fat diet, did not smoke, exercised at least 150 minutes each week at moderate-to-vigorous levels, drank moderately and engaged in some late-life cognitive activities — had lower levels of Alzheimer’s dementia. The more healthy activities the people adhered to the lower their risk.

Lead scientist Dr. Klodian Dhana tells Time magazine, “The core message from these findings is that whatever their genetic risk, people may be able to benefit from a healthy lifestyle.”

Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. 

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