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Minding our Elders: A healthy lifestyle may delay Alzheimer’s symptoms for 10 years

DEAR CAROL: My parents are both in their 70s. Other than Mom’s arthritis and Dad’s blood pressure they are quite healthy. I’m in my early 40s and also healthy.

Still, we worry about Alzheimer’s. It seems like we can’t go through a day without hearing or reading some news concerning the hopelessness of finding a way to stop the disease.

Is it too late for my parents to do anything different? How about me?

– Jen

DEAR JEN: Good news came out of the 2014 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Copenhagen last month. Many scientists are now ready to promote lifestyle changes as a way to prevent Alzheimer’s because recent studies have shown that a healthy lifestyle can delay symptoms in some people for up to 10 years.

Notice that these scientists aren’t saying that a healthy lifestyle will actually prevent Alzheimer’s disease, but for one in three people who would get the disease, a healthy lifestyle could delay the symptoms of the disease. Even if a person has the physiology of Alzheimer’s, if there are no Alzheimer’s symptoms, for quality of life purposes they may as well not have the disease.

While younger onset Alzheimer’s disease may set in early enough for people to eventually present symptoms, delaying the symptoms may still leave time for researchers to develop a drug that could reverse or cure AD.

For the majority of people whose Alzheimer’s symptoms appear as they age, the extra symptom-free five to ten years could mean that the person never would have to go through the extreme stages of Alzheimer’s. That’s especially good news for your parents.

Alzheimer’s aside, it’s a rare doctor who would tell a person that appropriate exercise, a healthy diet and an active mind would harm them in any way. Therefore, we really don’t have a reason not to follow the directives of those who encourage us to exercise, watch our diet and challenge our minds.

Even though diet advice is constantly changing, most of us can benefit from eating fresh fruits and vegetables and using moderation in our consumption of fats and sweets. A nutritionist can be a good resource for individual guidance.

Stress is also considered a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Learning how to cope in a healthy manner with inevitable stress and learning to eliminate stress that we have some control over is likely to keep us healthier and happier.

“Use it or lose it” is a slogan that works for the brain as well as the body. Alzheimer’s specialists recommend that we learn to do familiar things in a different way and that we continue to challenge our minds through work and/or hobbies. The idea is to strive for variety.

Let me emphasize once more that this lifestyle approach will not guarantee that one of your parents or you won’t develop the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. However, with scientists increasingly promoting the theory that some of us may significantly delay the appearance of symptoms by staying mentally and physically active, it seems like a good approach to me. At the very least, we may feel somewhat less helpless in the face of this disease.