By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Is the COVID pandemic the current health crisis?
Actually, the fastest-growing epidemic facing the United States and the West is Alzheimer’s, according to neurologists Drs. Dean and Ayesha Sherzai, who are married, spoke at the recent Seattle Rotary Club’s virtual meeting. Alzheimer’s ranks third, behind heart disease and cancer, as the leading cause of death for older people.
Alzheimer’s is personal to me, and rooted in my family history. Though I am not afraid of it, I have a reckoning with my own fate. Is the disease hereditary? If I have the defective gene, is there a cure? There wasn’t one for my mother a few years ago.
Which is an early Alzheimer’s symptom, losing long-term or short-term memory? What should we do to optimize our brain’s functions? What foods should we eat to prevent cognitive decline? How much memory loss is considered to be symptoms of Alzheimer’s? How much exercise is sufficient to protect ourselves from dementia?
Dean and Ayesha are co-directors of the Brain Health and Alzheimer’s prevention program at Loma Linda University. They have been studying Alzheimer’s for 17 years.
Currently, there is no drug to cure Alzheimer’s, Dean said. “You can’t reverse it once [Alzheimer’s] fully on board.” But if you had known the symptoms earlier, “you can push back the disease.” Although someone could have Alzheimer’s genes, it is low-risk, only 3%, he said.
Less than 1% of the time, Alzheimer’s is caused by specific genetic changes that virtually guarantee a person will develop the disease, according to the Mayo Clinic website.
Can Alzheimer’s be prevented?
The good news is, yes. “Prevention is the new treatment…and new cure,” Dean said. The neurologist couple met in Afghanistan in 2003, and discovered that they both lost grandparents to dementia. Both Sherzais’ grandparents were high-level government officials. Ayesha’s grandfather was the former prime minister of Afghanistan.
As specialists in preventive cognitive diseases, Dean said, Alzheimer’s has to do with lifestyle and environment. Lifestyle changes should focus on building our brain, said Ayesha. The five strategies to deal with Alzheimer’s are nutrition, exercise, stress management, sleep, and mental activity.
A plant-based diet is recommended, said Ayesha. “You should get your vitamins through the food you eat, not in supplements or pills. Food is your medicine.”
Another assumption is that if you have done your morning exercise, you can sit behind your desk four to five hours later, and not move the rest of the day. If that’s the case, “you will nullify the gains you have made in the morning,” Ayesha said. It is important to stretch and exercise every hour. Exercise 20 to 30 minutes each day for four to five days a week, she said.
Good brains are derived from regular moderate to strenuous activity such as weight lifting. She said the strength of the muscles in your foot is connected with brain growth. Leg strength is associated with the size of the brain. When we exercise our legs, it pumps blood to our brain and enhances blood flow.
The brain vs. heart
Which is the most important organ of the body? Heart, brain, kidneys, liver, lungs, bladder, stomach, or intestines? Many people assume it’s the heart. However, it “is the brain, and not the heart,” Dean said.
“Our brain, which weighs about three pounds, and about 2% of our body weight, controls 80% of our body function, and it has over 1 quadrillion connections,” Dean said. The two scientists work on preventive neurology extensively, and want to educate communities on how to prevent the disease.
Spa or sleep?
Stress is not necessarily bad for the brain, said Dean, because there are good stresses such as learning a musical instrument, engaging with other individuals, and taking a class.
“Our goal is to increase our good stress,” she said. “The types of stress that is under your control and connected to your mission in life.”
Bad stresses damage our brain, growth hormones, and blood vessels. Dean said people assume that getting a spa treatment to relieve stress will help your brain more.
A better remedy than the spa is sleep, Dean said. “Make your bedroom a spa.”
“Restorative sleep is best,” he said, “the kind of sleep which doesn’t require any medicine.” Medicine should only be a bridge, a short-term solution for anyone’s sleep problem, he added. The amount of sleep should be about seven to eight hours.
“Sleep is important because the brain consolidates memory, cleanses out bad proteins and waste (toxins), and makes space for memory for the next day,” Ayesha said.
Most people assume that the loss of long-term memory is an initial sign of Alzheimer’s. Not quite. Dean gave an example of people who didn’t think they have dementia because they can remember things from 50 years ago. The concern is when you don’t remember what happened to you a few hours ago or the day before, he said.
Optimizing brain activity
“Optimizing has to do with good stresses,” said Dean. “When it ties in with your life‘s purpose, such as running a company, and bringing you joy, those stresses are challenging your cognitive functions,” he said. “Good stresses make connections among the neurons.”
It’s a mistake for many “who are mentally active to go into retirement,“ he said. Then when they didn’t do anything for two years, they have the highest cognitive decline. His advice for retirees is to remain active in life.
Another misconception people have about playing games like Sudoku is that it will benefit your brain. Dean said those games are not good enough. He joked he might get sued by Sudoku.
Challenging your brain means growing your brain. Challenges which deal with complexity, are purpose-driven, and will push you, giving the brain connections. Complex behaviors including learning a dance or a new musical instrument, playing cards with friends, volunteering and running a company, are the highest protection against dementia. Eating more grain, eating less saturated fat, and exercising gives you growth hormone and oxygen.
The Sherzais’ talk has inspired hope for many who attended the Zoom meeting. The tendency for those who work at home is to sit in their chair for hours without getting up. It will damage your back as well as your brain. Some friends have complained they have more back pain working at home than in the office because they don’t have the right desk and chair at home.
To remove stress and tightness in your body, get out of your chair, dance, and swing around. Jump like kids. Keep moving. And schedule your breaks and activities every hour of the day.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.