Every morning my wife, Mary, does the crossword puzzle in the in ink and in less than 15 minutes. I don’t even try because I could spend all day and only have half of the squares filled in. Mary does it because she is convinced it will help prevent her from getting Alzheimer’s disease.
There is actually some evidence that intellectual activity like doing crossword puzzles is effective in small ways in preventing dementia. Mary is worried because her mother suffered and died from Alzheimer’s. It was a terrible thing for everyone involved.
The disease has now impacted me also through several close friends. It is hard to say whether the disease is worse for the patient or the caregiver. The commercials on TV would have us believe that if we only start taking the right drug soon enough, there is nothing to worry about. Sadly, this is just not the case.
Although what we now call Alzheimer’s has been around for thousands of years, it was not fully described as a disease until 1901 by a German psychiatrist named Alois Alzheimer. He described the disease in a patient he called Auguste D., who died in 1906 at the age of 50. Until 1977 physicians gave the diagnoses only to people younger than 65 years old, but now it applies to anyone who meets the criteria.
Alzheimer’s is now the sixth leading cause of death in America. As the population ages, it is predicted that 1 in 85 people will one day be affected.
All of us at some time worry we are developing the disease. We lose our keys, we forget our friend’s name, we forget which way to turn, and we start to worry if we are losing our minds. Thankfully, this is rarely true.
Unfortunately there are no effective screening tests for Alzheimer’s disease, partly because we still do not know what causes it. While there appears to be reason to think there is a genetic link, this can be proved in less than 5 % of cases. There are multiple hypotheses for the cause, but none are yet proven.
The fact that we don’t know the cause is why the drugs currently on the market are at best nominally effective. Those known as Acetyl cholinesterase inhibitors (the ones advertised on TV) have shown only a small benefit. None of them delay or halt the progress of the disease, despite how happy the people look in the commercials.
So what are we to do to prevent this horrible disease?
It should not surprise you that the same ingredients for a healthy body lead to a healthy mind. Since the brain needs an abundance of blood flow, the activities that we know help keep the heart strong also help ward off dementia. That’s right, regular exercise, not smoking, eating a Mediterranean diet (more fruits and vegetables and less red meat) and keeping your cholesterol low are the best preventions we have for dementia.
In addition people with strong social connections are less likely to be affected. Having friends is good medicine. These things are also true for caregivers who must have time for themselves when the people they love enter the long goodbye. The disease can become socially isolating for both patient and caregivers.
If someone you love is affected, do not hesitate to include your family, friends and faith community in the process. Until there is a certain cause and effective treatment, the best medicine we have is to show love and understanding every way we can.
(To learn more about Alzheimer’s disease go to http://www.ALZ.org.)