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Managing Potential Risk Factors of Alzheimer’s Disease

By Elaine Pomfrey

A woman stops in the middle of getting dressed because she can't remember what to do next. A man married for 52 years doesn't recognize his wife. These are the faces of Alzheimer's disease, a degenerative brain disorder that begins with a slow and steady destruction of brain cells, specifically neurons, and eventually causes irreparable damage to cognitive abilities.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia, but how is it different from other dementias? Two types of abnormal lesions in the brain characterize Alzheimer's: beta-amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles.

Nerve Cells and Alzheimer's

Alois Alzheimer, a German doctor in the early 1900's, discovered these lesions during an autopsy of a woman who had been demonstrating senile behavior while only in her 50's. The disease was named after him. Because these abnormalities can only be verified after death, physicians rely upon symptoms, medical history, brain scans and lab and neuro-psychological tests to diagnose the disease. Due to extensive research over the last 40 years, there is 80-90% accuracy in diagnosis.

Besides the plaques and tangles in the brain described above, Alzheimer's patients generally display certain symptoms. They degenerate slowly. Short-term memory typically is lost first. Alzheimer's is also associated with losing the ability to communicate effectively, to perform everyday tasks such as dressing or tooth brushing and to interpret signals from the five senses, for example, they may not recognize loved ones or notice their bladder is full. In contrast, functions that are not typically damaged in Alzheimer's patients are long-term memory, eyesight and muscle strength.

While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer's and its cause remains unknown, researchers have found possible risk factors. Some risk factors are unalterable:

  • Age – The chance of being diagnosed with Alzheimer's almost doubles every five years after age 65. 12.5% of seniors over 65 have Alzheimer's disease and the disease affects almost half the people over 85.
  • Genetics – The risk of having Alzheimer's is slightly higher if someone in your immediate family has it.
  • Gender – Women have a greater likelihood than men to have Alzheimer's.
  • EthnicityResearch has shown that Alzheimer's disease is 14% to almost 100% more common in African Americans than in Caucasians.
  • Head Injury – A significant head injury has been correlated with Alzheimer's.

On a positive note, you have the power to control other potential contributing causes by following these recommendations:

  • Keep your heart healthyHeart disease risk factors such as hypertension, high homocysteine levels and elevated cholesterol have been linked to a greater chance of developing Alzheimer's.
  • Prevent clogged arteries - Thomas Beach, MD of the Sun Health Research Institute Brain and Tissue Bank in Arizona examines donated brains regularly. He recently stated, "We have found that Alzheimer's disease patients are about two times more likely to have clogged blood vessels or severe atherosclerosis than people who are cognitively normal."
  • Stay happy - Depression may increase the risk of developing Alzheimer's. In a recent study of 2,000 Alzheimer's patients and their family members without Alzheimer's, those who had suffered depression, either within the last year or even as long as 25 years ago, showed a greater chance of developing Alzheimer's.
  • Monitor your blood sugar – Recent research has highlighted the positive correlation between insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes 2, and Alzheimer's disease.
  • Build brain reservesNeuroplasticity theory states that people can continue to expand their brain reserves even into old age. Those who continue to learn and challenge their brains create more neural connections and thus lower their risk of acquiring Alzheimer's.
  • Manage stress – Many of the potential risk factors for Alzheimer's are related to stress:  cardiovascular disease, depression, diabetes. Meditation is the most effective means to reduce stress. It provides very deep rest to the body and invokes the body's own healing mechanisms. Research indicates that the Transcendental Meditation technique reduces hypertension, insulin resistance, and atherosclerosis. In addition, it improves memory and intelligence.
  • Eat right – The brain is about 60% fat and it needs essential fatty acids (EFA) to build brain cells. Research has suggested a good diet of protein, complex carbohydrates and lots of fruits and vegetables along with EFA's - omega-3 and omega-6 - as a way to delay the onset of Alzheimer's. Studies have also indicated that Vitamin E can help memory problems. Alzheimer's patients often have a low level of Vitamin B12 so make sure you are getting the required amount.

Many of these steps may sound familiar because they are recommended for prevention of other diseases associated with aging. Scientific research supports the common wisdom that taking care of yourself both mentally and physically will improve your chances to live a long, healthy and happy life.

The following links provide information to learn more about the disease:

Risk Factors and Prevention:

Support for Alzheimer's Patients and Families:

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