Health Focus: Alzheimer's Disease
Concern about Alzheimer's Ted Stein to bolster his brain health and reduce his chances of developing the disease
By Radha Marcum
Edwin (Ted) Stein
Status: 73, Single, 2 sons
Profession: Retired professor; senior peer counselor
Issue: Lowering risk of Alzheimer's Ted Stein is a man of many accomplishments, earning his PhD in literature in 1984, training as an MD for seven years, running an art-film house in Manhattan in the 1960s, becoming a licensed massage therapist in 1990 ... and the list goes on. After retiring from his professorship at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, in 1997, Stein moved to Boulder, Colorado, where he now volunteers his time as a peer counselor for seniors. Some of his current clients have Alzheimer's disease, and his older sister, now 76, has had the disease for nearly ten years. When Stein forgets words on occasion, he often fears the worst.
"I see life as a progression in which particular memories, goals, and accomplishments are pulled together into a valuable whole, like a work of art," says Stein. "Alzheimer's cancels that." What's more, he fears the financial and emotional burden he would become if he did develop the disease. The good news is that a number of things can lower Stein's risk, many of which he is already doing.
Stay Mentally Active
A Yale graduate with a vibrant intellect, Stein is always involved in one pursuit or another—writing poetry, taking classes in foreign languages or government, giving presentations on literature, or attending cultural events. Not only is all this intellectual stimulation impressive, it's also helpful for preventing Alzheimer's. "Generally, there is an association between people who are active mentally and a lower risk of Alzheimer's," says Victor Henderson, MD, professor of geriatrics and neurology at the Donald W. Reynolds Center on Aging, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Nutrition consultant Kathleen Emmer of Petaluma, California, agrees that Stein "is wise to be staying active mentally. In this case, the old adage 'use it or lose it' applies." Henderson recommends reading, being a member of a discussion group, or even doing daily crossword puzzles. Activities that don't require active engagement, such as watching television, are less useful.
Fit Body, Healthy Mind
To prevent Alzheimer's, daily exercise is one of the best things Stein currently does. "It's been proven that people who exercise regularly are less likely to develop dementia than those who don't," says John Hibbs, ND, of the Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle. Stein jogs or walks two miles and does one to two hours of stretching or weight-bearing exercises every day. Exercise, experts agree, stimulates the flow of blood to the brain and provides cells with fresh oxygen, both of which help the brain stay healthy.
Exercise stimulates the flow of blood to the brain and provides cells with fresh oxygen, both of which help the brain stay healthy. Exercise, according to Emmer, also balances levels of adrenal hormones, such as cortisol, the "flight-or-fight" hormone your body produces when you're under stress. "It's very important for the professor to manage his stress response because excessive stress releases inordinate amounts of cortisol," explains Emmer. Although necessary at moderate levels at appropriate times, in large amounts over a prolonged period, cortisol can be "so toxic to the brain, it kills and injures brain cells." To help keep stress levels to a minimum, adequate sleep is a must, says Emmer, who recommends seven to eight hours or more a night. Hibbs encourages Stein to continue his daily meditation practice—another excellent way to lower stress.
Invest In Brain Food
Looking at Stein's primarily vegetarian, whole-grains diet, Emmer commends him on his food choices. She encourages Stein to eat organically grown foods; to get five or more servings of fresh vegetables and fruits daily; and to continue to avoid junk foods, processed foods, and foods high in saturated fats and trans fatty acids, which increase exposure to free radicals, a causative factor in Alzheimer's disease. Hibbs agrees, citing the many benefits of brain-nurturing nutrients found in whole grains and fresh, organic produce: vitamins, trace minerals, anti-inflammatory nutrients, and antioxidants.
Cutting out most meat and eating fresh, organic foods also reduces Stein's exposure to cytokines, inflammatory agents produced naturally by the body's immune system in reaction to irritating substances, such as trans fatty acids, herbicides and other pesticides, and chemical solvents, Hibbs says. When these "inflammatory promoters" bombard the body of a person who takes in inadequate amounts of anti-inflammatory nutrients, degeneration accelerates in the brain and other body tissues, he explains. Emmer also suggests limiting intake of alcohol, nicotine, and food additives, such as MSG, which speed up the aging processes that may contribute to Alzheimer's.
Stein occasionally eats fish, and both Emmer and Hibbs agree this can be beneficial, with some caution. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish have anti-inflammatory properties and are necessary for brain cells to function properly, but most fish also have high levels of mercury, which can lead to brain cell damage. Fish such as Alaskan salmon, tilapia, and cod are less prone to high mercury content and are therefore wise menu choices. For the same benefits, Stein might also take omega-3 fatty-acid supplements, such as flaxseed or cod-liver oil.
Stein also takes a multivitamin and mineral supplement daily, something all three experts recommend continuing, but he should consider doing more. Emmer and Hibbs suggest adding an antioxidant supplement containing vitamins A, E, and C and the mineral selenium, which reduce the levels of free radicals whose attacks can cause the brain lesions associated with Alzheimer's. Hibbs also advises adding supplemental zinc because zinc deficiency is increasingly common as people age, and has been linked to Alzheimer's. In addition, Emmer recommends a B-vitamin complex that contains B6, B12, folic acid, and vitamin C, which support the nervous system and decrease levels of the amino acid homocysteine. "There is evidence that folate [folic acid] and the B vitamins could reduce levels of homocysteine," says Henderson, "and could possibly reduce Alzheimer's risk."
The herbal supplement ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), which Stein takes daily, can also slow the progression of Alzheimer's, says Hibbs. Ginkgo, which has a history in Traditional Chinese Medicine, increases blood flow (and the flow of nutrients) to the brain and also acts as an antioxidant. In addition, Hibbs recommends Stein take acetyl-L-carnitine, a compound that promotes intracellular energy production in the brain.
A Family Link
Given Stein's family history of Alzheimer's, should he worry about developing the disease? When Stein's sister was first diagnosed, his reaction was "That's her, not me!" That attitude quickly changed as Stein became more aware of his own memory lapses, however minor. Both Henderson and Hibbs reassure Stein that just because his sister developed Alzheimer's doesn't mean he will. "Only 15 percent to 20 percent of Alzheimer's cases are hereditary," Hibbs explains, "and after the age of 60, the chances of developing Alzheimer's due to genetics decreases." However, Henderson cautions that the older you are, the more likely it is that you'll develop Alzheimer's for other reasons, and taking preventive measures can't hurt.
What about the occasional forgotten word or name? "Many of us experience some memory loss with age and never get Alzheimer's," Hibbs says. "It would be of more concern if [Stein] were forgetting appointments, forgetting recent conversations, or having difficulties carrying out activities such as handling his finances," says Henderson. And Hibbs says, "You have to ask, 'Is this a new thing? Is this a person who's had a sharp-as-a-tack memory for names his whole life, and then in the last six months it's changed significantly?'" If not, there probably isn't serious cause for concern. Going for regular physicals and checkups is recommended, Hibbs says, but worrying is not.
Radha Marcum is a poet and freelance health and natural lifestyle writer.