May 18 2009

Skeptical about exercise to prevent Alzheimer’s

The causes for Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia are varied. Alzheimer’s is associated with development of tangles in the brain, causing disruption in communication between cells.  It is also associated with atrophy, or deterioration of the brain.  Dementia has many causes and Alzheimer’s is only one of them.  But what makes a person prone to dementia?  The answer is unknown, but genetics is clearly one of the reasons.  Yet, as with any other genetic disease, experts believe that a healthy lifestyle may avert potential risks.  After all, we know that environment can influence how our genes behave.

In the past, experts have recommended healthy eating and exercising as ways to combat or prevent dementia.  One of the main causes of dementia is stroke.  We know that diet and exercise can help prevent strokes.  But exercise is not just physical, it can be mental.  Experts believe that exercising your brain can prevent or delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s.  A recent study in the UK pointed out that people who retired from work at a later age, thereby exercising their minds and bodies more, were less likely to suffer from dementia early.

I’m going to play devil’s advocate and say baloney to all this research on Alzheimer’s and dementia.  Certainly, I believe that keeping the mind active helps to create connections between your brain cells.  I like to indulge in mental exercises, as it does keep me alert and focused.  However, as with all research, there is always another to dispute it.  Similarly, it might not bear out very well in real life.  Who’s to say that by working past the age of retirement you are delaying dementia?  Isn’t it possible that the people who retired early were the ones who were already suffering from dementia?  I have known people to quit working because their performance at work was declining.  They were later diagnosed with dementia.  Does the research show this?  Did they even address this?

Alzheimer’s was once associated with lower socioeconomic class.  But that is no longer the case.  What’s apparent is that those who are highly intelligent perform better on the simple dementia tests, so they are not diagnosed as early as those who were less educated.  They are more likely to deny that something is wrong and may be so stubborn about it that they do not seek medical attention until later.  Though it does not hurt to advocate good, healthy eating and exercising your mind and body, I have seen too many seemingly healthy people with Alzheimer’s and dementia to think that it all boils down to that.  Conversely, I have seen unhealthy, uneducated people outliving the best of us with much of their original brain intact.  So, I am more cynical, or skeptical, about all these “new” research showing diet and exercise helps in dementia. 

It’s time they focused more on treatment of this disease, as we can see the trend in life-expectancy is increasing, rather than on meaningless ways to prevent it.  The diet and exercise theme has been done to death.  If they want to discover other effective means for people to take control of their lives and prevent dementia, by all means, go ahead.  But, I have concluded that the answer to the root cause of dementia still eludes us and we need to combat the disease right now.  We appear to be closer to finding treatments than the cause.  It is possible that we may be able to find ways to prevent the formation of tangles.  Now, wouldn’t that be more useful research?