Since 2009, former California First Lady Maria Shriver has been an Alzheimer’s research activist, especially as the disease relates to women. To bring awareness to this disease that seems to affect women more than men, Shriver founded the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement™ almost ten years ago. The organisation is a global alliance of individuals, organizations, researchers, foundations, influencers and industry leaders committed to finding out why Alzheimer’s discriminates against women.
How Alzheimer’s Affects Women
The statistics on women and Alzheimer’s disease are startling. Every 66 seconds someone in the U.S. develops Alzheimer’s, but did you know that 2/3 of them are women? Also, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, women in their 60s are more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s over the course of their lives as they are to develop breast cancer. In Australia there are more than 400,000 living with the disease. Dementia is the single greatest cause of disability in Australians over the age of 65 years and is the second leading cause of death.
Another disconcerting stat is that once women develop mild cognitive impairment, their cognitive decline is two times faster than men. No one yet knows why women are so disproportionately affected by the disease.
Scientists once thought that women were harder hit by Alzheimer’s as a consequence of generally living longer than men. Heather Snyder, senior director of medical and scientific operations for the Alzheimer’s Association, says that this isn’t the case and that new studies suggest there are different biological pathways in women’s brains and that hormones or even the way women’s brains metabolize food differently may explain why Alzheimer’s manifests itself more in women.
Snyder also says that because Alzheimer’s typically takes two decades to develop before memory changes occur, adopting a brain-healthy lifestyle in your 30s and 40s can make a big difference. Maria Shriver, not surprisingly, agrees and has a lot to say about a brain-healthy lifestyle.
Maria Shriver’s Top Tips for Brain Health
We are learning more everyday about how to age well and Shriver is a staunch believer that mental, physical and spiritual balance can make a difference. Current research does indicate that combining good nutrition with mental, social and physical activities can in fact help stave off Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Shriver’s tips for a brain-healthy life include the following:
• Minimise stress – Shriver took up mindful meditation but there are many other (non-pharmaceutical) ways to
alleviate stress and exercise is one of the leading antidotes. Laugh a little or a lot; make someone else laugh. Stop to smell the roses and take deep breaths. Stress, anxiety, and depression have all been linked to cognitive decline, so find ways to be calm!
• Exercise – Dancing is Shriver’s preferred form of exercise but any sort of regular cardiovascular exercise that elevates your heart rate and increases blood flow to the brain and body is advised; it stimulates the growth of new neurons and synapses in the brain. Cardio three times a week and weight/resistance training once a week is the recommended blend. But move anywhere, everywhere. Dance while you do the dishes. And protect your noggin. Wear a helmet biking and snow skiing or while engaging in contact sports; protect yourself from head injuries which may manifest themselves as dementia many years later.
• Mental stimulation – Train your brain. Shriver learned to play poker but any card game, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, and Scrabble are all good for a healthy brain. Ongoing learning also promotes mental fitness. Consider online courses or classes at your local community centre or college to keep your brain sharp.
• Blissful sleep – Sleep apnea and insomnia have proven to cause problems with memory and thinking. Experts recommend 7-9 hours of sleep a night and exercise helps make that happen; exercise loosens up amyloid deposits (which we don’t want!) and sleep then helps purge them from your brain. Maria recalibrated her lifestyle to improve sleep patterns. Keep the temperatures cool where you sleep and don’t take work to bed (make your bedroom a sanctuary); don’t recharge tech devices in your bedroom or have any light sources that will interfere with Melatonin levels and healthy sleep patterns.
• Diet & Nutrition – Shriver cut way back on sugar (sugar causes inflammation to the body and the brain) and fasts for 12 hours once a week (fasting reboots your metabolism and improves insulin sensitivity). She also recommends a diet with healthy fats, lots of colourful fruits and vegetables with antioxidants, and staying away from processed foods that create beta amyloids. Replace salt with herbs and spices and hydrate: eight, 8 oz. glasses of water a day. Just remember, what’s good for your heart is also good for your brain, so adopt a diet that does both. Wondering which diets are the best for heart and brain health? The Mediterranean or DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets are two that are proven to have great health benefits.
• Stay socially engaged – Volunteer, help a neighbour, walk with a friend, take an art class, or simply share more activities with friends and family. Social interaction makes for a healthy mind.
• Monitor & maintain a healthy baselinep; – Growing evidence suggests that many factors that increase the risk of heart disease – from obesity to high cholesterol and blood pressure – may also increase the risk of dementia. Get your numbers checked and establish a physical and cognitive baseline with your medical professional.
Alzheimer’s may in fact be the biggest health crisis in the world, and if “women are at the epicenter of the Alzheimer’s crisis, we must be at the heart of solution,” says Shriver. She is making great strides in helping us understand why women are so hard hit by Alzheimer’s, which may unlock information that can lead to a cure for everyone suffering from the disease regardless of gender. Meanwhile, there are many ways to prevent Alzheimer’s and live a brain-healthy life.