September 28, 2006
The Orange County Register
Courtney Perkes

Aging Americans can expect to live longer than ever before.

And aging alone puts them at greater risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, which strike with greater frequency as people age. By 85, the risk of dementia hits 40 percent.

There is no cure, and many researchers say current drugs that fight Alzheimer’s do little but manage the disease.

But there is good news. A growing body of research suggests that a balanced, healthy lifestyle – including physical and mental exercise – can help delay the onset of dementia.

A key, the experts say, is to start the fight long before symptoms appear.

An Alzheimer’s conference begins today in Irvine to discuss the latest in prevention. Among the topics expected to be discussed is the latest research that shows it is possible to stave off Alzheimer’s, at least temporarily. Several Orange County experts weighed in on the subject:

Q: What do people ask most often about Alzheimer’s disease?

A:It depends on their age, says Dr. William Shankle, an Irvine neurologist and author of “Preventing Alzheimer’s.” People over 65 ask if they have it. People under 65 ask how to prevent it. Experts say prevention measures include eating right, keeping the mind active and going for walks. It is believed that onset can be delayed by three years.

Q: What does research show about the benefits of exercise?

A: A 2004 study found that about 20,000 older women who exercised regularly experienced less cognitive decline than other women their age. Other studies have shown the sooner exercise begins, the better it protects the brain. “It induces many molecules that are almost self-healing, and strengthens the brain. It’s very much like a muscle – keep it tuned and it’s better off,” said Carl Cotman, director of the Institute for Brain Aging at UC Irvine. Shankle said an hour of daily exercise amounts to a 20 percent to 30 percent reduction in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Q: What about once dementia has begun?

A:Exercise still helps at that stage. A study published in 2003 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that Alzheimer’s patients – people who already show signs of the disease – benefited from exercising 60 minutes a week. They were less depressed and less frail, while those without exercise experienced greater decline. “The exercise is good to give them that stimulation of being able to do things and still use what capacities they do have,” said Beverly Almono, director of health services for Silverado Senior Living, a residential home for dementia patients in Costa Mesa. The 82-bed facility offers gardening, dog walking, art and exercise programs.

Q: What about safety concerns, especially in light of recent cases of people wandering away from home?

A:Close supervision is important. In June, an 83-year-old Laguna Beach man who suffered from dementia died after disappearing during his daily hike. But that doesn’t mean caregivers should eliminate exercise. Going for a walk can ease stress for both the patient and the loved one. “The benefits of structured exercise and social programs for dementia patients is really a must,” Cotman said. “The isolation, and just keeping them in a house with nothing much, is making the problem even worse.”

Q: Is a cure in sight?

A:Because aging is inevitable, so is loss of brain function. Almono, of the dementia care facility, said dementia is indiscriminate and afflicts intelligent, healthy people. “We have some doctors here. We’ve had politicians here. Unfortunately, just because you stimulate your brain and exercise doesn’t mean you won’t end up with Alzheimer’s.” But researchers are optimistic of slowing down the process and improving quality of life for those with dementia. Shankle said aggressive prevention and treatment can amount to a cure by preventing symptoms, and then reversing them when they do come. “Alzheimer’s is very much like high cholesterol and diabetes. It’s due to the elevation of a molecule. If you treat it, bring it down to a normal range, the symptoms do not progress,” Shankle said.

Q: Are there any products that aim at prevention?

A:Companies have begun introducing video games that stimulate the brain, challenging the mind to recall information more quickly. Posit Science is targeting the “healthy aging” market of adults 50 and older. The Northern California company’s programs are in use at several Orange County assisted-living homes. And local neurologist Shankle has created, which he says allows people to answer questions online and then pay $20 for a personalized report on risk factors, and how to reduce them.