Closing Down the “On Ramps” to Alzheimer’s
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | October 6, 2023
Uncle Chuck was a gem. A big, warm-hearted, generous man, he’d been through a lot – including developing a nasty case of PTSD from the Vietnam war. He worked hard to overcome his trauma and became an even stronger more compassionate person – quick to belly laugh, committed to his family, honest, authentic, and solid. He and my father were buddies on their 1959 college championship football team, which is how my dad met Uncle Chuck’s sister – my mom (who happened to be a cheerleader, LOL!) – and the rest is history.
The last time I saw Uncle Chuck was at Thanksgiving a few years ago – he’d recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Uncle Chuck was always willing to talk about difficult things. So, I asked him how he was doing.
“It’s really hard Kris,” he said, looking me squarely in the eye. “I’ve accepted it because I know that’s all I can do, but it’s hard – and to be honest, I’m scared, and I don’t want to leave Nat (his wife) alone.” He died a few months later.
My grandfather on my father’s side died of Alzheimer’s. My sister-in-law’s sister is currently declining with early Alzheimer’s. A few weeks ago, I learned that another uncle on mom’s side has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It feels like Alzheimer’s is everywhere.
It’s estimated that 7-10% of Americans over 65 are living with Alzheimer’s. About two-thirds are women, and African Americans are twice as likely to get the diagnosis. There’s a genetic component – you can get tested to find out if you have the APOE e4 gene – but whether or not you develop the disease is also dependent on lifestyle and social factors. And there’s currently no cure.
But there may be prevention.
Last weekend I attended the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation’s thirtieth annual conference in Phoenix (I’m a member of their Yoga Advisory Council). The presentations were phenomenal and somewhat hopeful. Because lifestyle is a big factor, habits like regular yoga practice can be a major element of prevention.
One presenter was Dr. Roberta Diaz Brinton, from the Center for Innovation in Brain Science at the University of Arizona, who’s spent years examining what she calls the “On Ramps” to Alzheimer’s. She explained that the big three are:
- Heart Disease
- Estrogen depletion
Dr. Brinton’s central message was to get treated for chronic diseases because they can be the on ramps to Alzheimer’s. If you have heart issues, glucose dysregulation, or you are struggling with the symptoms of menopause like hot flashes and insomnia, see a doctor, get it evaluated, and get treatment. Don’t wait – because, since there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, closing off the on ramps may be the best strategy for prevention.
Dr. Brinton’s presentation was full of research, but she also made her point simply, “The brain is a greedy organ, it takes 30% of your caloric energy. And, for it to function properly, your heart and digestion have to be able to give it the nutrition and oxygen that it needs.”
She also talked about how hot flashes can signal the potential for heart problems later and how estrogen is brain protective – the decline of estrogen after menopause may be one of the reasons that women are more likely to get Alzheimer’s than men.
From my perspective “treatment” can look like many things. I think it’s important to work with health care professionals that you trust and who actually help you. I know people who use Ayurvedic herbs for improving their heart health, others who’ve dealt with menopause symptoms with homeopathy, and others who’ve addressed their Type 2 diabetes symptoms with diet and Chinese medicine.
Personally, I believe in all forms of medicine – the medicine that works for you is the right medicine. I have an amazing primary care doctor, and I also periodically see a chiropractor, a Chinese medicine doctor, and an Ayurvedic practitioner. We have to feel confident in the people who help us co-create our health. That being said, I also believe that using western medicine for tests and diagnoses is essential – particularly when you are talking about serious issues like heart and brain health.
Early detection of disease is called Secondary Prevention. Treatment of chronic diseases once you have them is Tertiary Prevention. But Primary Prevention is the most powerful – it means adopting a healthy lifestyle early on.
Dr. Brinton’s presentation emphasized tertiary prevention (which, of course, could also be called “treatment”), but many of the other presentations were focused on prevention – living a healthy lifestyle, preventing chronic diseases, and managing stress. This is why yoga practice and yoga lifestyle (dinacarya) are so important – they can be essential components of a healthy, preventative lifestyle.
Everyone is going to die sometime of something. We can’t control everything about our health (or in our lives) – this is a central teaching of the yoga tradition. But knowledge is power. Knowing how to prevent cognitive impairment and taking action to do so gives us some measure of agency. With the statistics telling us that 6 out of 10 Americans have chronic diseases, there’s a resounding wake up call happening here.
Not only do we have to take steps to take better care of ourselves, we also need to work together to take better care of our loved ones, our communities, and our society in general. Prevention is never simply an individual effort – it’s a group project.
I believe the most cutting edge, innovative, and essential shift that’s happening in the yoga world is being facilitated by the yoga professionals who are bringing yoga out of the gyms and studios and into the communities, making it much more widely available, accessible, and accepted primary prevention strategy across populations – it’s important, hopeful work.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments, and, if you’re a teacher, if and how does your work promote yoga as prevention.
Please check out my 10 Day online program, Chair Yoga for Brain Health