Breaking News: The Future of Alzheimer's

By: Keely Savoie, Prevention
By: Keely Savoie, Prevention

Here's a hard truth for baby boomers: We're not getting any younger. And because we comprise 26% of this country's population, our aging means that disease demographics are shifting on a national scale. Case in point: By the year 2050, the number of people aged 65 and older who suffer from Alzheimer's disease is expected to nearly triple.

That's according to new research from the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging in Chicago, which estimates that the number of older Americans afflicted with Alzheimer's will surge from today's 5 million to 13.8 million within the next four decades. To reach that conclusion, experts relied on a detailed demographic assessment of Alzheimer's disease incidence, along with census information and population projections.

"The most significant risk factor in Alzheimer's disease is age," notes study co-author Jennifer Weuve, ScD, an assistant professor of internal medicine at Rush University. "And by the year 2050, the sheer number of people 85 and older will be unprecedented."

Despite the disconcerting finding, Weuve also notes that the projection isn't set in stone: Because Alzheimer's disease develops over several years, researchers believe that prevention strategies are most likely to be effective at younger ages--and there's still time for plenty of us to make healthy changes. "The time is now to have a huge influence on the future epidemic," Weuve says.

While certain risk factors--age, family history, and, yes, being female--are beyond your control, some prevention tactics have garnered support from the scientific community. "There are several strategies that should be pursued as having potential for delaying or preventing Alzheimer's disease," says Maria Carrillo, PhD, vice president of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer's Association. Here are three of them:

Exercise your body. What's good for your heart is also good for your brain. "The cardiovascular system feeds the brain," Carrillo explains. "It brings oxygen and nutrients and takes away the toxins and the bad stuff. If you don't exercise...that may contribute to memory decline over time."

Feed your brain. Eat a healthy diet that includes DHA, one member of the omega-3 family of fatty acids. While research is still ongoing, DHA "has given some hint of benefit in phase 2 trials," in reducing the risk of Alzheimer's disease, Carrillo says. Fatty cold water fish, like mackerel and salmon, contain high concentrations of DHA. The American Heart Association recommends two servings a week.

Stay busy. While a leisurely retirement might be alluring, studies suggest that maintaining the mental engagement of a meaningful job and an active social life are key to building what Carrillo calls your "cognitive reserve"--the neurological networks that allow your brain to stay healthy longer. "Studies have shown that people with a higher education, and people who stay socially and mentally active build up those kind of reserves," Carrillo says.

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