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A mind is a terrible thing to waste

Old age is not for sissies. It can be a tough time of life with challenges in health care, finances and loss. One of the worst losses is the loss of mental abilities resulting from such diseases as Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia. Over the past several years I've watched it take a greater and greater toll on my 89-year-old mother, who is a resident of Avamere's Arbor, the memory care wing.

Age is the single greatest predictor of who will get Alzheimer's disease (as many as 50 percent of people have it by age 85). However, it is a disease where prevention is possible for many people. The younger you start prevention strategies, the better.

It is alarming how the incidence of Alzheimer's disease has increased. There are now 5 million people who suffer from Alzhiemer's. Why the steady increase in its incidence? First, improvements in health care have extended the lifespan of most Americans, therefore more of them reach the Alzheimer's years when their bodies are still hanging in there, but their minds are failing. Second, there is every indication that lifestyle choices are a factor in the disease of the brain that robs people of their memory and their ability to live independently.

The industry can hardly build facilities fast enough to fill the need for people in memory care. Our goals then are to delay the onset of the disease, prevent it, or treat the symptoms to reduce the impact of Alzheimer's on those who suffer from it and on their families. Most of the treatment is focused on helping the brain function more normally.

What happens to people with Alzheimer's disease or other form of dementia is that the communication links in their brain become clogged with plaques and tangles. Treatment and prevention strategies try to keep the neuron pathways working - to prevent the brain from becoming brittle and inflexible.

Here are the best strategies for preventing brain deterioriation regardless of the cause:

1. Eat as if your life depended on it. A heart-healthy diet and a brain-healthy diet are the same. Get more lean cuts of meat such as chicken and fish into your diet; most dieticians recommend you get three to five servings per week or more. Salmon is the top choice.

Equally important is the type of fats that you eat. Find ways to incorporate extra-virgin olive oil and other unsaturated fats and to eliminate butter and other saturated fats. Say yes to complex carbohydrates, especially the cruciferous vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, cauliflower and kale. Say no to fried foods such as doughnuts and french fries; they are the worst offender when it comes to making the brain brittle. For more information on what to eat and what to avoid, see the recommendations of the American Heart Association. Your heart and your brain will thank you.

2. Exercise, even if it is for a few minutes a day. People who get regular exercise have a much lower incidence of Alzheimer's disease. Some of the benefits come from increasing blood flow to the brain.

3. Do everything in your power to reduce your risk of diabetes. Again, diet and exercise are two of the most important factors. One study found a 70-percent increased risk of dementia among those with borderline diabetes; another concluded that those with the poorest blood sugar control have the greatest risk of dementia. Recently, reports have emerged that a drug aimed at improving insulin response also may treat Alzheimer's disease or prevent it from occurring.

4. There is nothing like taking personal responsibility to help reduce your own risk of developing Alzheimer's. Research puts more information at our fingertips every year, and several promising therapies are in the research and testing pipeline. Until then, find your way to the Alzheimer's Association and American Heart Association Web sites for the latest in prevention and treatment information.

Nancy Hoffman is administrator at Avamere at Sandy Assisted Living and Memory Care.