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Lifestyle Changes Could Cut Alzheimer's Cases

Expert warns of doubling of incidence if brain not maintained

THURSDAY, Sept. 9, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Unless Americans make some lifestyle changes now, the number of Alzheimer's disease cases in the United States will double to 6 million by 2030, say experts who caution that their estimates are on the low side.

The projections were made based on an estimate that 3 million Americans have the disease today, said Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging and a professor of psychiatry at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute. "This is a more conservative model than you [usually] hear about," he said.

The Alzheimer's Association, for instance, estimates that 4.5 million people in the United States currently have the disease, which causes the gradual loss of brain cells and robs those afflicted of their memory.

Small also presented California and Los Angeles County estimates to better bring home the problem for the participants, many of whom come from within the state. "In California, by 2030, 580,000 will have Alzheimer's," Small said. Currently, the number is about 320,000. And in Los Angeles County, 134,000 will have the disease by 2030, compared to 92,000 now.

Small and other experts made the projections Thursday during the first annual Aging Forecast, which was held at UCLA.

The economic costs will also skyrocket, too, Small said. "By 2030, the per patient cost will be about $100,000 per year, in 1998 dollars," he said. "Right now, it is about half that."

But the news isn't all dismal. Simple lifestyle changes -- such as eating fish one day a week or staying mentally engaged by such simple pastimes as crossword puzzles or playing a musical instrument -- could slash the number diagnosed with the disease, Small said.

Reviewing studies from the scientific literature and his own recent study of 20 people -- comparing those who made lifestyle changes with those who didn't -- Small said simple changes can make a big difference. In his study, reported in July at an Alzheimer's disease conference, he put 10 people on a lifestyle program that includes mental exercise, physical exercise, stress reduction, and a "healthy brain" diet, including such foods as fish that are rich in healthy fats. The other 10 did not follow the program, serving as controls.

Those on the program began the day by stretching, eating healthy foods, walking 10 minutes, practicing memory skills, and engaging in stress reduction, he said.

"In just two weeks, 75 percent of those on the program had a 20 to 30 percent improvement in memory scores," he said. Their blood pressures dropped, too. "High blood pressure is associated with poorer brain health," Small said.

In his review of the scientific literature, Small found that people who ate fish once or more a week reduced their risk of Alzheimer's by up to 60 percent.

In reviewing several studies of staying cognitively active, Small found that "if you read, play cards, play a musical instrument, or dance -- just one day a week -- you lower your incidence by 7 percent." If you do 11 such activities a week, he said, you lower the risk of the disease by 63 percent.

The lifestyle changes could make a big impact, Small said. According to his computations, "Any one of those [lifestyle changes] could decrease the prevalence of Alzheimer's by 1 million cases within five years and 2.5 million within 20 years."

"The Small study seems to support the Alzheimer's Association's 'Maintain Your Brain' campaign," said Catherine Bryan, a spokeswoman for the group. It includes three elements, she said: managing your numbers such as cholesterol and weight, exercising your body and brain, and feeding your brain well by eating healthfully.

The projections of Alzheimer's cases made by Small are lower than those made by the association, Bryan said. "Our estimates say [that], by 2050, the number of individuals with Alzheimer's could be in the 11.3-to-16 million range," Bryan said.

But officials from the association agree with Small, Bryan said, that small changes can make a big difference and reduce the incidence of the disease. "What is good for your heart is good for your head, that's what the research seems to be saying," Bryan said. "There's evidence that exercising both your body and your brain could reduce your risk of developing the disease."

More information

To learn more about maintaining your brain, visit the Alzheimer's Association.

SOURCES: Gary Small, M.D., director, UCLA Center on Aging, and professor, psychiatry, Neuropsychiatric Institute, University of California, Los Angeles; Catherine Bryan, spokeswoman, Alzheimer's Association, Chicago; Sept. 9, 2004, First Annual Aging Forecast, UCLA, Los Angeles
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