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John Eggers: So, you think you have Alzheimer’s

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Don’t we all think we are getting Alzheimer’s disease?

It seems as if every magazine or newspaper you pick up these days has an article or blurb on Alzheimer’s. You might say it has become pretty popular and for good reason.

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Most of us, if not all, know of someone or have had a loved one who died of Alzheimer’s. My mother-in-law died in her early 80’s. She was placed in a care facility and her disease progressed to the point where she had forgotten how to eat her food. Still, her personality was very loving and she appreciated the touch of your hand. She died peacefully.

There are lots of facts and figures about Alzheimer’s. Here are several you should know.

1. According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, about 5 million people currently have it. As you already know, if you are over 65, the chances of getting it greatly increases with each year. Every 67 seconds someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s.

2. It is estimated that one to four family members act as caregivers for each individual with Alzheimer’s disease.

3. Almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women. More than 500,000 seniors die each year because they have Alzheimer’s.

4. Alzheimer’s disease is the most expensive condition in the nation. In 2014, the direct costs to American society of caring for those with Alzheimer’s will total an estimated $214 billion.

5. The last fact and most important one is, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s.

How do you know if you have it? Some researchers at the University of Washington have developed what they call a five-point Mini-Cog test, which has two parts. The first part is that you have to memorize three words, each worth one point. (e.g. leader, season, table) The second part is you have to draw a clock face and place the hands at 10 past 11. This is worth two points. The last part is you have to repeat the three words. Patients scoring three points or less merit further evaluation.

The Mini-Cog was developed at the University of Washington and was tested several years ago on more than 8,000 patients over age 70 in the Minneapolis VA Health Care System. None had a prior dementia diagnosis, but the Mini-Cog identified cognitive problems in nearly 26 percent of them.

Until we find a cure for Alzheimer’s what can we do? As an educator, this is where I come in. Researchers say it helps a great deal when we keep our brains healthy. This makes sense because Alzheimer’s is a brain disease. Your reading has told you that it is a progressive, degenerative disorder that attacks the brain’s nerve cells resulting in, among other things, memory loss.

So, how do you keep your brain healthy? There are at least six ways.  You know all of them: exercise, healthy diet, mental stimulation, quality sleep, stress management, and an active social life.

The more you strengthen each of those six areas, the happier, healthier and hardier your brain will be. It’s like I tell my students in order to persuade them to continue learning, “If you don’t use your brain, you lose it.” That’s a well-quoted cliché but it is true. When you take care of your brain it will work stronger and longer.

What does this mean? Well, if you exercise daily, take walks, go to the gym, remain active—great! If you stay away from those fats and carbs and sugar and use common sense eating habits—wonderful! If you stimulate your brain by learning new things, reading, talking, challenging it—fantastic! If you get your 8 or 9 hours of sleep each night—terrific! If you take care of your stress in meaningful ways—super! And, if you lead an active social life by getting out and mingling with others—you will, according to many studies, delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and you are less likely to develop it.

When should you start? I know many seniors and they have already begun to lead a brain healthy life. Of course, you can start anytime even right now.

Here are three word puzzles for you to do. Let’s get those neurons churning.

The first is an example. You have done many of these before.

1. death ....... life

Answer: life after death

2. /r/e/a/d/i/n/g/

3. ecnalg

4. abababababababababababababababababababab...

Guess what? I’m not going to give you the answers until next week. So try to read between the lines without giving a backward glance. Because I haven’t seen some of you for a long time, maybe this will cause you to look me up at which time I will say, “Long time, no see.”

In the meantime, take care of that brain.

JOHN R. EGGERS of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.

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