Don’t Forget, Live Smart
By Anna Sachse
When you’re young, it’s easy to think that just one cigarette, just one double-decker cheeseburger or just one too many drinks, won’t really make a difference in the grand scheme of your life. But like the jingle for Lay’s potato chips, you rarely stick to “just one,” and treating your body like crap can have a seriously sobering effect later in life.
I just got back from visiting my grandmother at her nursing home near Chicago, an experience that was extremely illuminating—as in, you can never forget to take care of yourself, because you never want to end up like the people I saw in her home. The facility was quite clean and nice, with attentive staff and acceptable food, but it still felt like little more than storage for people waiting to die, or as my grandmother said when the man sitting next to us started pleading for God to help him: “I’m living in the loony bin.” At 86-years-old, my grandmother’s brain has kept up remarkably well; but her body has not (she can’t lift herself up in bed, let alone walk), which is why she needs the constant assistance of a nursing home. But most of the other people in there were suffering from sort of dementia. Dementia is a general term for loss of mental abilities severe enough to interfere with daily life—Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form, accounting for 50-70 percent of cases, but other types include vascular (caused by reduced blood flow to parts of the brain), mixed, dementia with Lewy bodies and frontotemporal dementia.
None of them are fun.
The one I saw around me the most at the nursing home was Alzheimer’s, which is a progressive and fatal brain disease. Currently incurable, it gets worse over time, causing problems with memory, thinking and behavior severe enough to affect work, lifelong hobbies or social life, until the body shuts down. According to the Alzheimer’s Association (AA), it is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S.
Unfortunately, there are a few risk factors for the disease that we have no control over: age, family history and heredity. The single greatest risk factor is simply getting older—most individuals with the disease are over 65, and the likelihood of developing it then doubles every five years.
That said, of the five million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease, some 500,000 people under age 65 have Alzheimer’s or a related dementia, says the AA. Family history and heredity have something to do with that, but scientists continually research environmental and lifestyle factors that may be contributing to the development of the disease. Contrary to popular belief, aluminum, aspartame, flu shots and silver dental fillings do not increase risk. However, according to a study published recently in the Obesity Reviews, researchers with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore found that obese people have an 80 percent increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease compared to those with normal weight. Remember that “just one more” cheeseburger . . . ?
The risk of acquiring Alzheimer’s also appears to be increased by the conditions that damage the heart or blood vessels. Every heartbeat pumps about 20 to 25 percent of your blood to your head, where brain cells use at least 20 percent of the food and oxygen your blood carries; therefore, the many tentacles of heart disease, such as high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol, can all wreak havoc on the elaborate network of blood vessels that are feeding the brain. The AA recommends maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding tobacco and excess alcohol, staying socially connected and exercising both your body and mind.
Even these lifestyle adjustments might not be able to offset risk incurred by age, family history and heredity, but trust me when I say it’s worth a shot.