Spotlight: Thinking about Brain Health

Spotlight: Thinking about Brain Health

Date Published:
Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, a general term for memory loss and other intellectual abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life.

“Dementia is more widespread than people may think — it’s a broad spectrum illness,” said Jim Laditka, UNC Charlotte associate professor of public health sciences in the College of Health and Human Services. “People think about memory loss when they think of Alzheimer’s and dementia. But dementias also involve all sorts of brain and behavior changes — loss of language and loss of executive functions, such as the ability to plan, evaluate, and make judgments.”

Alzheimer’s accounts for 50 to 70 percent of dementia cases.

According to the recently released “Shriver Report,” it is a disease that disproportionately affects women. Nearly two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women, and it is the second most prevalent disease among women in Mecklenburg County.

Alzheimer’s cases are expected to rise to as high as 16 million by 2050 as baby boomers age. The report said there currently are an estimated 5.3 million people with Alzheimer’s in the United States, and 10.9 million unpaid caregivers.

When they learn there is the possibility to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and increase the risk of maintaining their brain function over time through relatively simple behaviors... that’s a motivator for good health habits that are associated with all sorts of tremendously positive health outcomes.
Jim Laditka, Associate Professor of Public Health Sciences

In 2005, Congress appropriated money for the first time to study the possibility of promoting health to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and more generally to promote brain health.

Jim was tapped to lead a national research effort funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with support from the Alzheimer’s Association, known as the “Healthy Brain Study.” Sarah Laditka, also an associate professor of public health sciences and director of the Master of Health Administration program, led the massive task of analyzing the Healthy Brain Study data, managing and coding thousands of pages of transcripts.

The Laditkas see a chasm between the information resulting from the study and widespread understanding of cognitive health. They are hoping to bridge the divide by crafting public health interventions and communications that help people understand the potential that exists in maintaining and promoting cognitive health through healthy behaviors.
National surveys indicate that among people ages 50 and older, cognitive health is the primary health concern.

“They are desperately concerned about their brain health. When they learn there is the possibility to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and increase the risk of maintaining their brain function over time through relatively simple behaviors, that’s a motivator we haven’t had before, and that’s a motivator for good health habits that are associated with all sorts of tremendously positive health outcomes,” Jim explained.

The Laditkas emphasize the importance of healthy behavior modification, such as eating a heart healthy diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and engaging in regular physical activity.

“The most wonderful thing about the physical activity results is they are very easily attainable by large numbers of people,” Jim said.

There is no generally accepted amount of physical activity that might protect the brain. Sarah and Jim agreed that the best current advice is to meet the CDC’s recommended physical activity level. For adults, that’s 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as brisk walking every week, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity such as jogging or running every week.

Jim stressed that even people with perfectly healthy behaviors may develop cognitive problems, including Alzheimer’s. “The evidence from epidemiology and animal studies increasingly suggests that we may be able to dramatically increase our chances of staying sharp through healthy behaviors,” Jim said. “This is extremely positive news. But some individuals with healthy behaviors will still develop Alzheimer’s disease or a related disorder.”

He added, “Many people don’t give much thought to how long they might live. If an individual reaches 65, their life expectancy is roughly to live to an average of 85. Roughly half of people who make it to 65 will live beyond 85. The risk of developing Alzheimer’s-related disorders rises dramatically from 85 onward.”

All the more reason to invest in brain health: “Brain health is a continuum. Even though there may be some decline with age, you want to slow it or delay it. The idea is to maintain brain health at its optimum throughout the lifespan,” Jim said.