In the 18th century, most people didn’t live very long. Grandparents were few and far between, and there was no such thing as a senior citizen demographic. Being that the average life expectancy was 40 years old, it was unusual to have three generations of one family alive at the same time.
Two centuries later, with advances in public health, sanitation, housing, nutrition, and immunizations, our lifespans doubled. At first, this shift was due to a sharp decline in infant mortality, but by the latter half of the 20th century, a new phenomenon was taking place: More and more people were surviving into their 60s, 70s, and 80s, supplanting all previous longevity statistics.
Today, upwards of 46 million Americans are over the age of 65, gaining approximately five percent every 10 years. By 2060, the number of senior citizens is projected to be over 98 million.
The rise in life expectancy is a good thing. We have our parents and grandparents around longer and can expect the same for ourselves. Old people add dimension to the family unit and enrich the cultural fabric of society. But an older population faces age-related health issues, like certain cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and perhaps the most worrisome of all, dementia.
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a set of symptoms where nerve cells in the brain malfunction or die, impairing memory, thinking, and executive functions. The leading cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.
Unlike other afflictions, Alzheimer’s disease is progressive, incurable, and unresponsive to stabilizing chemotherapies. Also unlike other afflictions, it will affect each of us in some way.
Treating and caring for Alzheimer’s patients requires staggering resources, both financial and medical, and it places an incredible emotional strain on families. Right now, one in eight people 65 or older has Alzheimer’s, and cases ratchet up to 50 percent over age 85. With an ever-increasing older population, this disease casts a long shadow on our future.
In an Alzheimer’s brain, abnormal and toxic proteins called beta-amyloids build up in the network of neurons, leaving dead brain cells in their wake. The dead brain cells form sticky clumps, or plaques, which interrupt communication between adjacent neurons, forcing them to wither and twist into tangles.
These tangles trap more plaques, which, in turn, create more tangles, and gradually, the affected brain area shrinks and dies. This tissue trauma triggers an inflammatory response from the body’s immune system, which hastens the deterioration.
Eventually, plaques and tangles destroy all vitality. The brain loses its ability to perform even the simplest tasks, like walking, swallowing, or breathing.
Like any neurodegenerative disorder, reversing or repairing the damage done by Alzheimer’s disease is unlikely. Once nerve cells in the brain lose function, they never regain it. The best hope, given what we know, is prevention. With new understanding about the physiology of dementia, the medical community is now recommending specific ways to stave it off.
The main culprit in brain diseases appears to be the mysterious beta-amyloids, but scientists aren’t exactly sure how or why these rogue proteins arrive. What they do know is that certain foods and behaviors contribute to their accumulation.
According to one study out of Stanford, these lifestyle factors may cause deterioration in the synapses long before any telltale signs of dementia present, which means Alzheimer’s disease may develop far earlier than originally thought.
The good news is there are active measures we can take right now to avoid or counteract beta-amylase production and ensure brain health.
There is compelling evidence linking compounds found in certain foods to the buildup of amylase proteins. These compounds, known as advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, are formed when fat, protein, and sugar molecules are heated at high temperatures. They are particularly abundant in bacon, sausage, fried or grilled food, as well as some cakes, biscuits, and pastries.
Nitrates, which are abundant in preserved and processed food, such as lunchmeat, cheese, cured meat, and beer, chemically react with certain proteins to form nitrosamines. Nitrosamines become highly reactive at the cellular level, altering genes and damaging DNA. Not only does nitrate exposure correlate with Alzheimer’s diagnoses, it is also a known carcinogen.
Limiting intake of these foods and using alternative cooking methods reduce the risk of AGE and beta-amylase production.
In addition to eating more raw vegetables and fruits to maximize antioxidants, new studies show that the Indian spice turmeric contains a compound called curcumin, which actually seems to dismantle plaques and tangles.
The health benefits of getting adequate sleep cannot be overstated, and Alzheimer’s prevention can be added to the list.
When a person sleeps, brain cells shrink, making room for an increased flow of cerebrospinal fluid. The brain flushes away disease-causing plaques and tangles, essentially cleansing itself of these toxic molecules.
Studies show people who experienced chronic insufficient or interrupted sleep had higher levels of beta-amylase in their spinal fluid than those who were well rested.
It is well documented that exercise improves body function, but now there is evidence that exercise actually protects the brain and decreases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease – by half.
According to a Cambridge study, cardiorespiratory fitness increases the thickness of the cerebral cortex, which is the outer layer of gray matter in the cerebrum. Not only does this thickening ward off shrinkage from degenerative diseases, but it protects a healthy brain from age-related atrophy as well.
Exercise also boosts cognitive recall, eliminates harmful stress hormones from the bloodstream, and regulates blood flow – all of which factor into brain health.
After everything we do to take care of our bodies and extend our lives, it would be a shame if our brains weren’t there to enjoy it with us. When it comes to preventative and proactive lifestyle choices, what works for the heart works for the head.
I now know there are steps I can take to change how I think, to find the true me again. That is why I am going to take better care of myself this year. In fact, that’s the only resolution I care to make. For both my own health, and as an important example to my kids, this year, I'm resolving to practice a kindness that starts from within.