When did I first become interested in Alzheimer’s disease? It was in 1974, when my mom first showed signs of dementia.
For years, she clerked in a Chicago department store, Wieboldt’s. One day, she had trouble making change — we thought it was just anxiety. Soon after that, she had trouble remembering my name. Seven years later, she passed away, not knowing where she was or who she was.
It was dreadful. In those days, it was rare for people even to mention the dreaded “A” disease. But that changed when Time magazine did a front-page story on it.
Back in that day, nearly everybody smoked. My mom puffed down two packs a day. She had a typical meat-and-potatoes American diet. Exercise was for the young. Meditation and mindfulness were exotic activities for strange people.
This leads me to the top question of the day — how to prevent this terrible disease. Remove the toxin of smoking and too much alcohol — those are easy steps. Get your blood pressure and cholesterol under control.
How about diet? The scientifically proven diet that hits the spot, the king of eating, is the Mediterranean diet.
And then there’s exercise — two types here — physical and mental. What exercise is best for you? Anything you will do all the time. For many, that’s walking. Outdoors is wonderful, but stepping out in the mall will work when it’s awful outside. There’s also the bike, the elliptical, swimming, jogging, dancing, etc. What sings to your heart sings to your body.
Mental exercise is another key issue. At UW-Madison, where I’m based, Dr. Richard Davidson’s Center for Healthy Minds is a star institution dedicated to just this idea — studying what makes our minds, the essence of our brain, work like a well-oiled machine. His research shows that mental exercise is like physical exercise. Do something. And that doesn’t mean watching TV or YouTube, a passive exercise, but rather doing crossword puzzles, reading and practicing meditation or mindfulness.
What is more rarely discussed is the value of mental exercise in social interaction, such as talking and doing things with others. Recent research published in the prestigious journal the Lancet theorized that more than 50 percent of all dementia could be prevented.
One startling factor researchers found was that hearing loss, especially in middle age, was causing nearly 10 percent of all dementia. Wow! Why hearing loss? Because when we don’t hear, we don’t talk. We don’t interact.
If my mom knew what I know today, she might never have developed the awful “A” disease. I live with that thought every day because, among other things, I don’t want to develop it either. Action certainly speaks louder than words, for me.