An Ounce of Prevention Goes a Long Way to Preventing Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

Currently more than 55 million people live with dementia worldwide, and there are nearly 10 million new cases every year. . . . Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and may contribute to 60-70% of cases. . . . Dementia is currently the seventh leading cause of death among all diseases and one of the major causes of disability and dependency among older people globally.”–World Health Organization, 2 September 2021

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It happens more often than I care to admit–the inability to come up with a particular word while engaged in conversation. In my mind, I can see the shape of the word lurking in the shadows of my brain.  Try as I might to shine a mental flashlight on the word, the word will continue to evade me in a cavernous pit of forgetfulness only to materialize a few hours, or even days, after the conversation has ended.

I have witnessed dementia grip one grandparent’s aging mind and Alzheimer’s disease affect another.  Then again, how many other people can say the same thing?  Therefore, why do I worry, when my brain stutters, sputters, and struggles with a word, misplacing an item, or wondering why I walked into a room?  Answer: because I do not want to be a burden to others.

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That said, I dearly loved my Mamaw and my Papaw.  Even when they were in the throes of dementia and Alzhiemer’s respectively, I still adored them.  However, I was not responsible for their overall care and well-being.  That responsibility fell squarely upon the shoulders of my parents, their spouses, and their siblings. Instead, I was the grandchild who could visit, help-if asked–and leave as I pleased. I didn’t have to worry about the direct care and multitude of decisions that each diagnosis required–and those decisions, it seemed to me, grew in direct proportion with the disease’s progression.  

Mamaw had two children, and Papaw had three.  Even if one child was the legal guardian, they still had another sibling with whom they could confer regarding decisions, seeking help, or any of the other myriad of responsibilities that accompanies caring for a loved one with a form of dementia.  Whereas, I have one child.  One.  And in the words of Three Dog Night, “One is the loneliest number . . .”  I could cry thinking about putting that sort of responsibility upon her.  

My prayer is that dementia will not be my legacy to my daughter. Therefore, I have become somewhat obsessed with habits that could prevent dementia and Alzheimers. One quick recent search for, “preventing dementia and enhancing brain health,” and, according to Google, precisely, 1,500,000 results appeared in 0.56 seconds, many of which are considered “scholarly articles.”  Additionally, searching “habits that increase risk for dementia,” produced nearly as many results.  The point is that I am not alone in my desire to prevent and reduce risk for dementia.

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Unfortunately, there is no known cure for dementia, and even the currently prescribed therapies and medicines have proven to have little efficacy. This is often due to the fact that developing any of the various types of dementia is believed to be a complex cocktail of factors including age, medical history, lifestyle factors, and genes. Consequently, numerous scholarly sources point to a number of preventative measures since most cases/types of dementia are not directly inherited. 

One of the most cited statistical links and effective measures to prevent dementia is regular participation in movement and exercise. Some sources break down the amount of time devoted to cardiovascular, strength, balance, and flexibility, with 150 minutes/week being gold standard. However, all agree that it is the consistent practice of exercise/movement that matters most.

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Another point of agreement is the importance of consuming a healthy diet. In fact, many researchers point to the following diets: MIND, DASH, or Mediterranean as exemplary choices for prevention.  However, there are some research quibbles with regard to best diet practices.  One debate is over how much and/or what meat should, or should not, be eaten, although most seem to agree that fatty fish, such as salmon, is a solid preventative choice.  There is also some contention regarding the use, or disuse, of dairy, but the general consentment is that if you choose to consume dairy, pick low-fat products.  Most research agrees that the consumption of healthy fats–plant oils, seeds, nuts, and avocados– are an excellent choice.  However, the amount needed is not always a point of agreement.  Nonetheless, the research clearly points to an overall consumption of a high fiber diet that heavily emphasizes a wide variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes; AND limits salt, sugar, saturated fats, and processed foods as effective and preventative practices.  

Alcohol consumption and sleep appear to have both positive and negative attributes when it comes to dementia prevention.  It appears that moderate alcohol consumption–no more than two drinks for men and one drink for women–specifically enjoyed with food, appears to be preventative.  However, drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis, seems to increase the likelihood of dementia.  Likewise, getting enough sleep, defined as 7-8 hours, on a regular basis is a preventative measure; conversely, getting too much sleep (10 or more hours), or not enough sleep (less than 6 hours), increases dementia risk. 

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One of the more interesting bits of research centered around the practice of Kirtan Kriya (KK). It is a type of meditation, specifically 12-minutes long, that involves small hand movements, known as mudras. This ancient practice has been cited in several scientific journals as strongly linked to the prevention of dementia. In fact, several Alzheimer’s and dementia research groups offer/sponsor tutorial videos and articles on KK.

There are several other points of agreement among the scientific community for preventing and/or lowering the risk for dementia, including: 

  • Avoid, or quit, smoking
  • Stay mentally active, socially connected, and engaged in meaningful work/tasks
  • Care for mental health 
  • Manage blood pressure and/or diabetes
  • Schedule regular wellness checkups and preventative tests/screenings
  • Maintain a faith/spiritual/meditation practice(s).

While I did not discover anything ground-breaking in my recent research dive, it was clear to me that a few good habits of health go a long way.  Best of all, it’s never too late to increase a healthy habit or two.  Just as following the basic tenets of faith are important applications for spiritual well-being, implementation of basic health practices can go a long way in ensuring the vitality of life.  In the end, we may not be able to avoid dementia or other age-related illnesses, but we can make impactful choices in order to maintain a healthy, active, and balanced lifestyle for as long as possible.   

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Proffee or Protea: Beverage with a boost

“While eating an adequate amount of protein is not going to prevent age-associated loss of muscle altogether, not eating enough protein can be an exacerbating factor that causes older adults to lose muscle faster,” Wayne Campbell, a professor of nutrition science at Purdue University.

Recently, I listened to a podcast with a great deal of information about women’s health concerns after menopause.  I was stunned to hear that after the onset of menopause, women can lose up to 20% of their bone density.  Skeptic that I am, I decided to research this fact. Turns out, according to numerous bodies of research, including several articles cited on the National Library of Medicine, women lose up to 10% of their bone mass within the first five years after menopause. By age 60, according to a 2022 article by the Endocrine Society, most post-menopausal women have indeed experienced 20% bone loss, with one in two women suffering from at least one fracture in their later years of life.  I. Was. Stunned. 

While I’ve always known bone loss was a real thing, I did not realize the rapidity and significance of bone mass loss for post-menopausal women.  Furthermore, I discovered that somewhere between the ages of 65-70, men experience bone loss at approximately the same rate as women, according to the National Institute on Aging. Therefore, both men and women should be concerned about bone loss, especially if wanting to reap the benefits of one’s senior years with a healthy, fully-functioning body.

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That said, to those readers in their younger years, according to an article, updated in 2022 by Breastcancer.org, it’s never too early to take extra measures to prevent and/or slow the loss of bone mass, especially if you’re over the age of 30, when the natural loss of bone mass begins.  Common preventative measures for ALL ages include, but are not limited to ensuring a daily intake of calcium through dark leafy greens; fortified milks, juices, and cereals; low-fat dairy products; and/or taking a calcium supplement.  Additional bone maintenance measures include participating regularly in a variety of weight bearing exercises, such as running, walking, hiking, resistance training, weight lifting, and balance exercises; either quit smoking, or don’t start it; limit alcohol consumption to 1-2 drinks per day; and maintain a healthy body weight.  Finally, another commonly overlooked item is ensuring consistent consumption of daily protein. 

According to numerous recent articles, including 2019 pieces by the Mayo Clinic and Kaiser Health News, one of the biggest diet changes men and women over the age of 50 should make is increasing the intake of protein to support both muscle and bone health, especially since aging bodies process protein less efficiently. There are many valid reasons cited, but one of the most compelling reasons include reducing the likelihood of the loss of basic functioning, such as dressing self; walking up and down stairs; getting out of bed, bath, shower.  Additionally, increased protein intake helps ward off chronic or acute illness.  Furthermore, if experiencing a serious illness, surgery, or hospitalization, the added protein benefits the body’s ability to more efficiently metabolize protein, which significantly declines in times of stress, such as one experiences during serious health events.  This is especially important in the case of hip or knee replacement, or other similar surgery, in which large muscles will be underused. 

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The recommended RDA intake for protein is .8 to 1 gram of protein for every 1 kilogram of body weight (1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds) for the average healthy adult.  However, according to both the Mayo Clinic and KHN, adults over 50, should lean into slightly higher levels, 1-1.2 gram of proteins per 1 kilogram of body weight; however, those with chronic or acute illness or injury, should consider 1.2-1.5!  Ideally, this total amount is consumed throughout the day, with a serving of 25-30 grams of protein at each meal.  While supplements such as protein powders and/or ready-to-drink protein shakes are easy and convenient ways to increase protein to the diet, they should not be the end-all-be-all source of protein.  Instead, focus on consuming a wide array of whole food sources of protein such as lean meats, eggs, soy, nuts/seeds, quinoa, dairy, and beans/lentils.  

If you do choose to supplement with protein, as I am doing once per day, it is important to choose one that is low in sugar and other additives that can be harmful to the body such as heavy metals, thickeners, fillers, and extra ingredients with low nutritional value.  Personally, I look for a protein supplement with as few ingredients as possible that I can read/recognize/know and 20-25 grams of high quality, plant-based protein.  That said, protein supplementation is a highly personal choice, and I encourage you to take time to carefully read labels, research, and choose one wisely.  It should be considered only one tool in the toolbox of healthy nutrition along with consuming a wide variety of whole foods with heavy emphasis on fresh vegetables and fruits. 

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Below I am sharing a recipe for my currently favorite way of consuming protein.  It is super quick and easy.  I mix it up in the morning, take it with me to work, and sip on it with my lunch.  You may prefer it for or with breakfast, as an after work-out snack, or an afternoon pick-me-up.  It can be made with regular or decaf coffee or tea.  Personalize the ingredients, and make the recipe yours!

In the meantime, exercise regularly, eat whole foods–including lots of nutritious plants, maintain healthy sleep hygiene, and be mindful of your protein intake.  Here’s to your health and the health of your bones!  May you be strong and healthy for years to come!

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Proffee (Protein coffee)

*Ingredients:

4-8 ounces of favorite cold brew coffee

**4-8 ounces favorite milk (plant or dairy)

**4-8 ounces ice and/or water

**1-2 scoops favorite protein powder (I like chocolate flavored for coffee.)

Optional add ins:

½ teaspoon vanilla extract or powder

¼ teaspoon cinnamon or other favorite spice

Favorite sweetener 

Dash of salt

Protea (Protein tea)

*Ingredients:

4-8 ounces brewed tea that’s been cooled (black, green, matcha, etc. . .)

**4-8 ounces favorite milk (plant or dairy)

**4-8 ounces ice and/or water

**1-2 scoops favorite protein powder (I like the vanilla flavored for tea.) 

Optional add-ins for chai tea flavor:

½ teaspoon vanilla extract or powder

½  teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ginger

⅛ teaspoon allspice

Favorite sweetener such as honey, brown sugar, etc . . .)

Directions for both recipes:

Combine ingredients in a shaker cup or blender.

Shake or blend well.

Drink immediately, or make ahead of time and store in the refrigerator for up to 48-72 hours; however, the recipe will need to be shaken again before consuming. 

Additional notes for both recipes:

*Feel free to adjust amounts/ingredients to personalize for your taste preferences and/or dietary needs.

**Milk, added water, and/or protein powder can be replaced with favorite ready-to-drink protein shake, such as OWN, CorePower, Boost, Evolve, etc. . . .