By Underwood, Anne
Just days into 2004, are you already struggling with those New Year's resolutions to eat right, exercise and shed excess pounds? Here's added incentive to stick with the program. It turns out that the healthy measures most of us vow to take every New Year's could not only make us look better in bathing suits but also lower our risk of Alzheimer's disease.
For generations, Alzheimer's has seemed as unpredictable as a game of chance-- either you win or lose at dementia roulette. But that picture is starting to change. Scientists have long known that proper diet, exercise and weight control can help lower the risk of heart disease, strokes and vascular dementia. Now they're recognizing that the same healthy-lifestyle factors may also lower the risk of Alzheimer's. In short, what's good for the heart is good for the brain. "Over the last three years, the single most significant trend in research is the evidence that risk factors for heart disease track with those for Alzheimer's," says Bill Thies, vice president of medical and scientific affairs of the Alzheimer's Association, a nonprofit group in Chicago.
The vascular hypothesis, as the idea has come to be known, got its tentative start in the 1980s at the medical examiner's office in Lexington, Kentucky. Neuropathologist Larry Sparks, who was then the chief bio- medical consultant, was studying the brains of people who had died in a variety of accidents. None of the victims had overt signs of dementia. But Sparks noticed that many of their brains bore the same telltale amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles that characterize the brains of Alzheimer's patients. As the number of cases grew, he noticed that plaques and tangles were three times more common in the brains of people with heart disease. "If they were resilient enough not to succumb to heart trouble in their 60s, they might be staring down the loaded barrel of dementia in their 80s," says Sparks, now with the Sun Health Research Institute in Arizona. Many scientists were skeptical.
Then results started coming in from long-term epidemiological studies. In 1996 Dr. Ingmar Skoog, a psychiatrist at Goteborg University in Sweden, published a study in The Lancet showing a correlation between high blood pressure at the age of 70 and a tendency to develop Alzheimer's 15 years later. Was hypertension years earlier setting people up for Alzheimer's in their old age?
Other studies suggested it was. In 2000 the Honolulu-Asia Aging Study reported that middle-aged Japanese-American men with diastolic blood pressure over 90 (the second of the two blood-pressure readings is diastolic) ran five times greater risk of dementia 20 to 25 years later than those with diastolic pressure in the 80-to-89 range. If the men treated their high blood pressure, however, risk of later Alzheimer's fell. The Honolulu findings were particularly powerful because the researchers were able to examine the brains of participants at death. …