Closing Down the On-Ramp to Alzheimer’s

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. He was 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!). The rest is history. The last time I saw Uncle Chuck was Thanksgiving a few years ago. He’d recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. 

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 disease. 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.

Is Alzheimer’s Disease Inevitable?

1 Happy multi-generational women having fun together after a yoga workout. Concept of community. wome spending time together and healthy aging to help prevent Alzheimer's.

It’s estimated that seven to 10 percent 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 30th 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.

What Are the “On Ramps”?

Heart health is important to help people with aging and also prevent Alzheimer's.

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:

  1. Heart Disease
  2. Diabetes
  3. 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 percent 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.

What Does Alzheimer’s Treatment Look Like?

Brain Health concept with brain diagram. Concept of preventing Alzheimer's disease with healthy brain habits.

From my perspective, “treatment” can look like many things. I think it’s important to work with healthcare professionals that you trust and who actually help you. I know people who use Ayurvedic herbs to improve 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 must feel confident in the people who help us co-create our health. That being said, using Western medicine for tests and diagnosis is essential, particularly when you are talking about serious issues like heart and brain health.

Prevention is Your Best Defense

Yoga class, exercise, and meditation prayer position of senior women together for yoga workout for zen, peace and balance and healthy aging and stress reduction,

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”). However, many of the other presentations 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. 

Take Action Against Alzheimer’s 

Female Teacher Leading Group Of Mature Men And Women In Class At Outdoor Yoga Retreat to help reduce stress for healthy heart and brain aging to help prevent Alzheimer's disease.

Everyone is going to die of something sometime. 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 six 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 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 as a primary prevention strategy across populations. It’s important, hopeful work.

If you’re a teacher, how does your work promote yoga as prevention?

Reprinted with permission from Subtle Yoga.   

c-iayt certification logoCommitted to the widespread adoption of yoga as a population health strategy, Kristine Kaoverii Weber, MA, C-IAYT, eRYT500, YACEP has been studying yoga and holistic healing for nearly 30 years advocating, speaking, and teaching about yoga since 1995, and training educators since 2003. Her organization, Subtle® Health, LLC, provides holistic, mind-body training, education, and clinical services with the mission of enhancing community health infrastructure. She is the director of the Subtle® Yoga Teacher Training for Behavioral Health Professionals program at MAHEC in Asheville, NC, presents workshops and trainings internationally, and is frequently invited to speak about yoga at health care conferences. After completing her BA and MA at Georgetown University, Kristine trained extensively in many styles of yoga, including Viniyoga, as well as in Asian bodywork therapy and homeopathy.

She is the author of The Complete Self Massage Workbook and has published articles in the International Association of Yoga Therapist’s journal, Yoga Therapy in Practice, and other wellness publications. Her work has been featured in Redbook, BodySense, Women’s World, Natural Health, and Lifetime TV.

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