Your brain could be diseased, but that might be okay

January 2, 2008 by  
Filed under ALZHEIMER'S

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An article published in Neurology, December 11, 2007, suggests that more than 85% of older Americans have some form of brain disease, even if they have no symptoms. In other words, you can have the plaques and tangles in your brain which are typical of Alzheimer’s disease, and practically speaking, it may not be Alzheimer’s. That is, it may not affect your behavior or thinking at all.

The study done at the Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, like the Nun Study of Dr. David Snowdon, involved dissecting brains, not living people. Both studies came to similar conclusions about multiple causes for dementia. I recall Snowdon’s surprise when he discovered that the brain of one sharp, intelligent participant was full of Alzheimers’s-like structures. His conclusion, and the conclusion of the Rush University researchers, was that if you never have a stroke, symptoms of dementia may never appear.

So instead of trying to see if they’ve discovered a vaccine for Alzheimers’s disease (they haven’t), it would be better for you to work on preventing strokes: watch your blood pressure, your weight, your cholesterol, and your cigarette smoking.

And that, as they used to say in the Sixties, is a drag. I would much rather get a vaccine than cut my sodium level any more. I tell myself I don’t have time for more exercise. And if I smoked, I probably couldn’t stop. The best strategy for preventing strokes is not complicated. But most of us aren’t willing to follow it.

My farm girl grandmother was perhaps a good example of someone who always followed an anti-stroke strategy. She was 90 before she had one, and then it seemed to have some hard-to-describe effect on her thinking. Even before that, I think she had serious brain disease, even though nobody ever dissected her brain. She wouldn’t have approved of it if someone had tried. On some days, I wondered if she was in her late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. She had few delusions, except when she had a fever or took Aricept, but that’s another story. Still, she needed help, eating, walking and dressing, which is typical of advanced stages. It’s also typical of blind, arthritic people, but that’s also another story.

But even while she was having occasional delusions, my grandmother could walk around a city block, once or twice a day. She certainly didn’t have any problems with being overweight, though she sometimes said I was going to make her “fat like a duck” (she weighed less than 100 pounds). She never smoked – at least, she never told me any stories about smoking. And her blood pressure was low, not high. I heard a doctor quoted as saying that people with low pressure will always feel tired, but they’ll live to a hundred. And that also sounds like my grandmother. The always being tired part. Not the part about living to a hundred. But that’s also another story.

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