For the past decade, I’ve had a front-row seat to the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s. The neurodegenerative disease has wreaked havoc on my mother-in-law. And those who love her.
According to neuroscientist Dr. Jeanette Norden, Alzheimer’s affects more than five million Americans and 25 million individuals worldwide. It is most common in industrialized nations and occurs more often in women than men.
Retired from Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine, Jeanette researched nerve regeneration for 20 years. For three decades, she taught medical, graduate, and undergraduate courses. “My students have been good to me,” says Jeanette when I comment on her long list of awards bestowed on her by students.
Throughout her career and retirement, Jeanette has enjoyed increasing the public’s awareness of strokes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and all the different diseases that affect the brain.
“The more information people have and understand, the more likely they are to make changes in their lifestyles,” she says. And our habits appear to be a significant factor in all those “terrible diseases that plague us as we get older.”
Besides teaching much-in-demand classes through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Vanderbilt, Jeanette delivers community service presentations to senior care facilities, churches, women’s groups, psychologists, and counselors. In her easy-to-digest style, she strives to strengthen her community through education.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s, afflicting individuals younger than 65, runs in families. It is genetically transmitted.
The late-onset version, occurring after age 65, is idiopathic. The cause is unknown. Among the factors increasing the risk for developing late-onset Alzheimer’s are obesity, head injuries, hypertension, diabetes, and chronic stress. And risk increases with age.
“If you are misfortunate enough to have a genetic form of the disease, no amount of lifestyle change is going to make much of a difference,” says Jeanette.
But our daily habits can play a role in other forms of Alzheimer’s. We can decrease our risk of the dreaded disease by taking matters into our own hands.
According to Jeanette, some factors we can control are:
Jeannette makes a point to walk at least 10,000–12,000 steps each day. She and Pansy, her rescue dachshund, start the morning with a 45-minute walk in the park. “Even if she dawdles, I continue to move in place,” says Jeanette.
“What we want to avoid is sitting,” says Jeanette.
The good news? “Any form of movement is positive,” says Jeanette. House cleaning, gardening, grocery shopping, all those steps count. And they add up. Her weekly routine includes resistance training with light weights and yoga. And she stretches every day.
“After we exercise, the muscles we’ve worked shorten,” Jeanette says. To avoid muscle pain and injury, we must stretch. Consistent stretching won’t keep us cognitively sharp, but it keeps our bodies healthy. And a healthy body can move.
We all know we should avoid sugar, salt, and fats. We should concentrate on eating ingredients from the earth – vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains. What we may not know – and I didn’t – is, after we eat our final meal or treat in the evening, we should not take one more bite until the next morning.
“Periodic fasting – even if only 8-10 hours – helps to control weight, regulate blood sugar, and promote cognitive health,” says Jeanette. Once she’s eaten dinner, no more food until the next day.
An early riser, Jeanette’s biggest meal is breakfast, with an “enormous bowl” of oatmeal, cream of wheat, and loads of berries and dried fruit. She’ll grab a cup of nuts or a protein shake for lunch. Dinner consists of a plant-based protein or chicken alongside a mound of vegetables.
The veggies provide antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber, which are good for the gut. “And studies show a relationship between a healthy gut and brain,” says Jeanette.
Jeanette is quick to point out she doesn’t “deprive herself. Of course, I enjoy the occasional piece of steak or ice cream cone or glass of beer,” she says. If we eat well most of the time, a splurge is not going to affect our health. “It’s moderation, not deprivation,” she says.
Jeanette sleeps 7-9 hours each night.
“Our brains have no way to store glucose, oxygen, or nutrients,” Jeanette explains. They constantly turn things over, metabolizing sugar and using up proteins. Some of these byproducts “dump out” into brain spaces. At night, those byproducts are removed from the brain. “If they aren’t cleaned from the brain, we think they play a role in the buildup of plaque and gunk between neurons in the brain.”
All humans need companionship – others to share and socialize with. Friends keep us engaged, look after us, and stave off loneliness. We need those bonds.
Since Jeanette is a beloved teacher and speaker, I’m surprised when she describes herself as “socially shy.” Her main source of support is a close-knit group of people who know her inside and out. “We aren’t all geographically close, but we share a bond. And that bond is what matters,” she says.
Sitting and playing solitaire doesn’t cut it. A crossword puzzle only counts if we have a difficult time solving it. We have to work at the mental activity.
We could learn French or Spanish. Or, says Jeanette, “we might become more proficient at the language we already know by learning new vocabulary words.”
To sit and watch a movie, we aren’t challenging ourselves cognitively. But “if you summarize the plot, profile the characters, and lead group discussion after the show, that’s a challenge.”
The latest bestseller may be an entertaining pastime, but reading is not necessarily a mental challenge. Before she dove into Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning, Jeanette had a basic understanding of Fascism in some European countries. Albright’s book reinforced facts Jeanette, an avid World War II buff, knew. And taught her some new information also. “To challenge yourself, build on what you already know,” she says.
“I always tried to teach my students how much fun learning can be,” she says. She has traveled around the world, speaking to hundreds of audiences on effective teaching methods. For a long time, she’s considered writing a book targeted to educators – college professors, second-grade teachers, parents. “I talked about my ideas for a book until my friends grew tired of hearing me,” she laughs.
And then came the pandemic.
Nowadays, Jeanette is putting the finishing touches on her book. Her challenge is to organize her complex material and structure her chapters in an understandable fashion. “So readers will follow me and learn something,” she says.
So – some factors we might be able to control. When a neuroscientist gives me direction, I hope I follow her instructions!
What kinds of exercise do you do? Do you try to limit the junk in your diet? What types of mental challenges interest you?
Tags Brain Health