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Too Close For Comfort: Navigating the increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease

Posted Mar 07 2009 2:10pm

Alzheimer’s disease extracts a toll across generations. Its diagnosis in an aging parent creates an immediate crisis for the offspring who must come to terms with their increased risk of winding up with the same affliction.

New high tech imaging further complicates the emotional upheaval of discovering Alzheimer’s disease “in the family” with its ability to supposedly identify offspring who are appear to be “on track” for the same outcome years before the first symptoms arrive. Painfully, this breakthrough in early detection does not come with a breakthrough in early treatment. Currently, there is no early treatment for “anticipated” Alzheimer’s disease.

For many of the offspring of parents with Alzheimer’s disease this is all too much too soon. They elect to not know the details of their familial risk and simply take their chances. But brain research may be offering some relative “good news” to this “to know or not to know” dilemma by providing important insights about the brain and how to keep it healthy.

First and foremost, brain research is starting to change our minds about the very nature of the brain itself. We are seeing more impressive evidence of “neuroplasticity,” the profound power of the brain to overcome, work around, and even reinvent itself in the face staggering set backs. Norman Doidge captures this new understanding in an intriguing book, The Brain That Changes Itself. It reminds us that the brain is still revealing its uncanny ability to side step disease and misfortune.

Brain research is also starting to offer new insights about the mind-exercise connection. While our techno-evolution into immobile, 24/7 screen watchers may be good for the information-curious brain, it is clearly bad news for brain health. It turns out that our cultural sluggishness creates nutrient and perfusion deficits our brain can ill afford. John Ratey makes a compelling argument for the brain’s fundamental need for exercise in his fascinating book, Spark. It reminds us that we are not simply bystanders in the drama of brain health.

In a similar manner, brain research is starting to sort out other factors that can preserve optimal brain health in addition to exercise. While diet is a hot topic, the findings so far have yielded mixed results. What we do know is that foods that are good for the heart appear to be good for the brain. But beyond that there are no magic brain bullets, expect for possibly one. Blueberries. Sue Halpren’s personal journey through maze of memory research in Can’t Remember What I Forgot, found that blueberries appear to benefit brains unlike any other food. It reminds us that the battle for optimal brain health needs to be waged not only on the treadmill, but also in the grocery store

Lastly, the battle may also utilize new software programs specifically designed to improve the health of older brains. Halprens’s book discusses a program by Dr. Mike Merzenich called Brain Fitness for auditory processing and memory. Initial clinical research suggests that that it does indeed improve cognitive function ( http://merzenich.positscience.com/ ). It reminds us that the recipe for brain health will include an integrative mixture of life style habits, technology, and possibly medications. As important, it means that the offspring of Alzheimer’s patients have more options than simply to wait and hope for the best.

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