It’s been a wild week since my last “Wellness Wednesday.” Just when I thought my summer couldn’t get any crazier, along comes Irma. If you’re here in Naples with me, I pray that this article finds you safe and well (and maybe even air conditioned).
Hurricane prep is just part and parcel of living in South Florida. So is having elderly neighbors.
I consider myself very fortunate on so many levels: I have the physical, mental, and financial ability to prepare myself for a major storm, and I am able to handle several days without power. Not everyone here is so fortunate. I’m very concerned about some of my neighbors and patients, not to mention my mom, who is riding out her first storm without dad. We’ll make it through OK — this isn’t our first rodeo — but it got me thinking about caring for seniors again. I recently shared some insights for total-life wellness in later life, but I want to focus on one specific area this week.
I have the privilege of being personally acquainted with some amazing healthcare professionals in this town, especially when it comes to providing care for the elderly. But if there is one health condition that seems to evade treatment, it’s Alzheimer’s Disease.
According to research from the Alzheimer’s Association, about 1 in 10 Americans over age 65 has Alzheimer’s Disease, and for people over age 85, the number goes up to 1 in 3. That’s more than 5 million people. And as the largest demographic group in America (the Baby Boomers) advance into their 60s and 70s, the incidence is going to increase, even if the percentage stays the same. At the same time that deaths from heart disease have gone down by 14%, deaths from Alzheimer’s Disease have gone up by 89%. In an area where a million people have come to retire, and countless more are coming year after year, this is a healthcare crisis in the making, unless we can educate people and persuade them to make some simple lifestyle changes.
Now, I know people around me are aware of it because they joke about it — when they can’t find their keys or remember their kids’ names. I hate when people do that. Maybe they are afraid to talk about it seriously and joking about it keeps it at arms’ length emotionally, but we need to take it seriously so we can make the necessary lifestyle adjustments to protect ourselves.
Understanding the Disease
So, what do we know about it?
Not as much as I’d like. I’ve seen some pretty interesting research about deposits of certain types of proteins forming a plaque between brain cells, but it is still just one piece of the puzzle. There are plenty of theories about what causes it, but most healthcare providers throw up their hands when it comes to treatment.
So far, the best we can do is identify steps you can take to prevent or slow the development of the disease. Let’s consider some of them:
Food As Medicine
First, and maybe most important, is to watch what you eat.
So far, the track record of medical treatment is spotty at best, but they are working against a much bigger problem. Alongside the steady increases in obesity, cancer, and diabetes, I believe Alzheimer’s has its roots in the Standard American Diet. The SAD is high in sugar, carbohydrates, sodium, and chemical preservatives, and low in fiber, healthy fats, and useful nutrients. The rise in disease over the last thirty years is just the first fruits of the massive harvest that is coming because we have largely abandoned food in favor of food-like products.
On the other hand, the Mediterranean Diet has a strong association with longevity in the cultures where people follow it. Dark leafy greens, wild fish, olive oil, fermented foods, nuts, limited red meat, and plenty of filtered water are all associated with healthy cells, including brain cells. When food is your medicine, as Hippocrates taught us, our bodies live longer and stronger. In fact, the more color your have in your diet (purple, orange, yellow, and red vegetables), the better off you are in every part of your health.
“Foods” To Avoid
If you are concerned about protecting your memory, I urge you to avoid:
- Processed foods. As a rule of thumb, if it comes in a cardboard box or a plastic bag, leave it there. Eat living food.
- Tap water. Most municipal water systems are eviscerated with chlorine, fluorine, and aluminum. Fluorine is a known neurotoxin (meaning it kills brain/nerve cells).
- Sugar. I’ve talked about this at length. Sugar is poison to every cell in your body, overwhelmingly addictive, and should be a controlled substance.
- Food packaged in aluminum. Aluminum has been shown to leach into the food packaged in it, just like lead, mercury, and BPH, and it is another major neurotoxin.
- Refined grains. Foods made with white, refined flour can cause some people’s brains to swell. Swelling in the brain can cause permanent damage to the neurons.
It’s worth noticing that these same changes will benefit your gut, and thereby, your immune system. Alzheimer’s researchers are starting to come to the same realization that we have: your gut flora and brain are very closely linked.
Now, before you unload on me because I took away all your favorite foods, I encourage you to discover fruits and vegetables. They will never hurt you, and you will enjoy them well into your twilight years. On the other hand, sugar will gradually take away your ability to enjoy anything, including sugar.
Second, stay physically active.
Take a walk every day. If you have a loved one living with you, take a walk together and share your thoughts with each other.
Watch one of the “Move Right Monday” exercise videos each day and do the movements. I designed these exercises to be simple, low-exertion movements so that anyone at any age can do them. If your flexibility has become limited over time, these exercises will help you to limber up those stiff joints. If you will take five minutes every hour to do one of these movements (or even 2 or 3 times a day), you will be surprised at how quickly you begin to feel stronger, more flexible, and more stable.
I would also encourage you to read this article about High-Impact Interval Training, which is a powerful way to burn fat, tone muscle, and lower your BMI, which has a strong correlation with longevity. After all, a little daily exercise is easier than you think.
Build A Strong Brain
Third, keep your head in the game.
One of the most consistent observations in dementia research is that many people have staved off the onset or development of dementia by keeping an active mind. People who work in highly-collaborative environments or jobs that deal with complex issues seem to have the strongest, healthiest brains later in life, as well as those who enjoy working on puzzles, learning languages, or making music. The more connections you make between the synaptic trees in your brain, the stronger those trees become. Strong associations reinforce memory, and habits dig deep grooves that last as your brain ages.
Remove the Toxins From Your Heart
Finally, manage your emotions.
An increasing body of research has been showing what God told us thousands of years ago: stress is bad for you. Your brain was not made to store anger, hostility, hatred, and bitterness. I believe you could make a case that, over time, your mind will try to wipe out toxic memories, and in the process will damage other connections in your soul. I can’t prove it with research it, but some of the sickest people I know are the ones holding an angry grudge. Let it go, for your own sake. Remember, unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
I can’t promise you that taking all these steps will reverse the damage if you have already begun to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease, but I believe the evidence supports the notion that you can slow or even stop the progression of dementia by making some small lifestyle changes. And I’d be willing to bet that most of my readers can all agree that having control of all of your mental faculties late in life is worth laying down your Twinkies today.
If you live in the Naples area, I’d like to congratulate you for living through the “Big One.” We will never forget our visit from Irma, but if I know this town, we will rise up stronger and healthier than ever. As soon as you are able to get out of your driveway, I hope you’ll stop by my office behind the YMCA on Pine Ridge Road. I would love to meet you and discuss your health goals.
“At the end of your FEELINGS is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas