According to a recent article in The Globe and Mail, one in eleven people over the age of 65 suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. The likelihood of developing the disease doubles about every five years after age 65 says the Alzheimer’s Association website. After age 85, the risk reaches nearly 50 percent. A family history of Alzheimer’s increases one’s risk of developing the disease even further.
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions but given the fact that I’ve been watching this disease gradually rob my mother of her memory and her mind, I’ve definitely been giving a lot of thought to what I can do to lead a brain-healthy lifestyle and to reduce my risk of suffering the same fate.
The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain by Barbara Strauch was a reassuring read. Impeccably researched and easy to read, the book explores the latest findings that demonstrate that the middle-aged brain like mine is actually more flexible and more capable than previously thought. Apparently standing in the basement wondering what I came down to get or failing to remember a name that I know I should know are not signs that I’m losing it after all!
Though there isn’t enough scientific evidence to prove that a healthy lifestyle can prevent Alzheimer’s, studies have shown that regular exercise, a healthy diet, managing stress, getting quality sleep, staying socially active and engaging in mentally stimulating activities may help prevent or delay symptoms. So how am I doing? The beginning of a new year seems like a good time for a bit of self examination and perhaps some goal setting.
I’d definitely give myself high marks for exercise and diet. I was working hard at maintaining physical fitness and healthy eating long before I began to think about what effect they might have on my brain. Fortunately what’s good for my heart and the rest of my body is also good for my brain. The Christmas season sabotaged my efforts in both these areas but now that I’m back home and into routine again, I’ll soon be back on track and yes, Santa did come… I met my goal of being able to do ten push ups by Christmas morning! Hopefully I’ll soon be doing even more.
Stress management and quality sleep go hand in hand for me. As long as I’m not feeling anxious about anything, I usually sleep well and when I’m well rested I handle stress better. I assume that that’s probably true for most people. Retirement has, of course, been a wonderful stress reducer! I still have crazy school dreams once in a blue moon but not like I used to. For reasons that neither my doctor nor I have been able to figure out, I’ll lay awake for hours if I eat anything sweet after about 8:30 p.m. so I’ve learned not to do that. I also sleep better in the winter time when we have longer hours of darkness. That’s one definite goal for this year; darker blinds for the bedroom before spring arrives. I plan to buy ones to match the newly painted feature wall.
Being away as much as Richard and I are, staying socially active and connected is something we need to consciously work on when we’re at home. While we wander the world, everyone else’s life goes on and if we want to be included we need to keep our connections strong. For that reason, entertaining more is another one of my goals for the coming year. I see the effects of failing to stay socially active in my mother’s life. After Dad retired, they settled into a high rise apartment in Vancouver where Mom didn’t make the effort to get out and develop new relationships. Once a very social person, she gradually became more and more reclusive. Now that she’s truly housebound, she has no friends to come and visit.
I don’t know how much failing to stay mentally active had to do with Mom’s eventual decline but I’m determined not to let that happen to me. I’m a firm believer in the importance of lifelong learning. I’m an avid reader and also a member of Lumosity, a website that offers of a series of engaging brain games and exercises each designed to improve a particular area of cognition; speed, memory, attention, flexibility or problem solving. In addition to playing individual games, participants can enrol in guided brain fitness courses that are designed to improve each of the five areas. Brain training has become as much a part of my daily life as eating and sleeping. Since Christmas, I’ve also been working on logic puzzles. Thank you to the Santa who put a whole book of them in my stocking!
So am I worrying about the possibility of succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease? Not really. When I stand in the basement trying to remember why I’m there, I’ll simply remind myself that that’s normal forgetfulness and that I’m doing everything I can to prevent something much worse.