When did I first become interested in Alzheimer’s disease? It was in 1974, when my mom first showed signs of dementia.
For years, she clerked in a famous working women’s Chicago department store, Wieboldt’s. One day, she had trouble making change – we thought it was just anxiety. Soon after that, she had trouble remembering my name. Seven years later, she passed, not knowing where she was or who she was or who her loved ones were.
It was dreadful. In those days, it was rare for people even to mention the dreaded “A” disease. But that changed when Time magazine did a cover story on it.
Back in that day, nearly everybody smoked. My mom puffed down two packs a day. She had a typical meat-and-potatoes American diet. Exercise was for the young. Meditation and mindfulness were exotic activities for strange people. Few in those days thought about prevention. You went to the doctor when you were sick, not to prevent being sick.
This leads me to the top question of the day – how to prevent this terrible disease. Remove the toxin of smoking and too much alcohol – those are easy steps. Get your blood pressure and cholesterol under control. Chalk one up for modern medicine.
How about diet? The scientifically proven diet that hits the spot, the king of eating, is the Mediterranean diet. Beyond a doubt, it’s the best of the best.
And then there’s exercise – two types here – physical and mental. What exercise is best for you? Anything you will do all the time. For many that’s walking. Outdoors is wonderful, but stepping out in the mall will work when it’s awful outside. There’s also biking, swimming, jogging, dancing, etc. What sings to your heart sings to your body.
Now let’s talk about Blue Zones, or areas of the world where people live longer than average. These folks have mastered “The Longevity Code” (which, by the way, is the title of my 2001 bestselling book and the PBS special I worked on more than a decade ago). People in Blue Zones move all the time. They don’t sit in front of their computer or smartphone immobile like so many Americans do. They usually hit that 10,000 steps a day. Their secret really isn’t a secret at all – it’s just moving, not being a couch potato.
Mental exercise is another key issue we rarely talk about. Why? Because we have scant research on it. At the University of Wisconsin, where I’m based, Dr. Richard Davidson’s Center for Healthy Minds is a star institution dedicated to just this idea – studying what makes our minds, the essence of our brain, work like a well-oiled machine. His research shows that mental exercise is like physical exercise. Do something. And that doesn’t mean watching TV or YouTube, a passive exercise, but rather doing crossword puzzles, reading and practicing meditation or mindfulness.
What is even more rarely discussed here is the value of mental exercise in social interaction, such as talking and doing things with others. Recent research published in the prestigious journal the Lancet theorized that more than 50 percent of all dementia could be prevented. The research suggested that chasing the cure wasn’t the answer, it was preventing the disease by rooting out the causes.
One startling factor researchers found was that hearing loss, especially in middle age, was causing nearly 10 percent of all dementia. Wow! Why hearing loss? Because when we don’t hear, we don’t talk. We don’t interact. We withdraw from life. We stop those critically important social interactions – something the Blue Zone people are aces at. They’re social folks.
If my mom knew what I know today, she might never have developed the awful “A” disease. I live with that thought every day because, among other things, I don’t want to develop it either.
Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician and host of the public radio program “Zorba Paster on Your Health.” He can be reached at askzorba@ doctorzorba.com.
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