It’s disquieting to forget — again — where you left your glasses, where the car keys are, the name of that one woman at your daughter’s school. But everyone forgets, right? Especially these days, with so much information coming at us all the time. Right? It’s not just me? I’m in my mid-50s; could this be something else, could I be exhibiting early symptoms of Alzheimer’s?
As director of the UCLA Longevity Center and professor of psychiatry, Dr. Gary Small hears questions like these every day. He also hears them at parties, from friends, and even in the airport. Most of us experience forgetfulness as we age, and Alzheimer’s looms large in our worries. Even though 60 percent of us who are middle-aged or older experience memory loss, only 1 in 5 of us mentions it to our doctors — we’re scared of what we might learn (or maybe we forget to mention it!). And Alzheimer’s is increasing in the population, which doesn’t help our fears: There are 36 million people now suffering from Alzheimer’s, and in 40 years there will be 115 million cases worldwide.
Dr. Small and Gigi Vorgan have written an authoritative, accessible, and engaging book reporting on what we know about Alzheimer’s disease in terms of potential causes, development, and prevention, which is the book’s real focus. It is encouraging to read about the real benefits that can be gained from relatively simple lifestyle changes: incorporate physical activity into your daily routine; eat foods that are good for your brain; reduce your stress; sharpen your mind with mental workouts. The authors walk you through the research on each of these factors in straightforward and simple language, illuminated by stories of their patients, their friends, and even themselves.
An important point the authors make repeatedly is that it’s not too late (or too early!) to take care of your brain. Although it might be a little scary, establish your starting point – find out just how well your memory is working before you begin the program. The authors provide a number of brief questionnaires to assess each of the four areas addressed by their program: subjective memory, physical fitness and activity, diet, and stress levels (and management skills). The questions are simple to answer (e.g., how often do you have trouble finding the correct word for something; how often do you have trouble falling asleep), and are focused on behaviors that will be affected by your participation in the program outlined in this book.
Each chapter that focuses on a specific prong of the program opens with an anecdote, followed by a summary of the current research and understanding of the issue at hand. This material is presented as simply as possible, with references in an Appendix for readers who want to dig more deeply into the research.
The chapters’ real value lies in the very specific steps you can take to help keep your brain working well for as long as possible:
- The chapter on strengthening memory skills provides details about developing good memory habits and presents the reader with easy-to-do exercises that will help practice and develop the skills.
- The chapter on physical exercise includes photographs of very simple exercises you can do at home, without equipment.
- The chapter on healthy brain nutrition includes handy tables outlining potent antioxidant foods, healthy protein options, and antioxidant spices.
- The mental workouts chapter is fun, offering page after page of brain teasers designed to “train but not strain your brain” (and an Appendix lists a number of websites that provide additional brain teasers).
- Finally, the stress management chapter outlines very specific things you can do to minimize and reduce stress.
In the event you are overwhelmed by all the information, the authors put it all together for you in a useful chapter titled “Your First Seven Days.” This illustrates just how easily these changes can be incorporated into a busy life. For instance, on Day 1:
- Begin with a morning mental warmup – something as simple as noticing a detail of the clothing of the first person you see that day.
- Do five minutes of aerobics (perhaps you park a little farther away from your office).
- Drink a glass of water when you get to work.
- Have a midmorning snack (suggestion is provided), and spend 4 minutes with a brain training exercise.
- Eat lunch (suggestion is provided).
- In the mid-afternoon spend 3 minutes with your eyes closed, visualizing your breath.
- Eat an afternoon snack (suggestion is provided) and spend 1 minute writing down the clothing detail you noted that morning.
- Have dinner (suggestion is provided), walk for 10 minutes after dinner, and spend 2 minutes at night doing a brain training exercise.
Throughout the book, memory tricks or Q&As appear as pull-quotes in the margins. For example:
Q: I have heard that some people have their dental fillings replaced or removed to avoid Alzheimer’s. What’s that about?
A: For many years people have expressed concern that the mercury and other toxins……
I found these distracting on the page, and wished they had been placed in an Appendix.
The book’s design is light, with a relatively large font, wide spacing, and a cluttering of different fonts on the page. This is a small complaint, certainly, but just thumbing through the book I had the mistaken first impression that the book was filled with fluff, which is certainly not true.
Although I have no family history of Alzheimer’s disease and experience memory loss relatively infrequently, this book encouraged me to incorporate these simple steps into my life – why not! The changes are easy to make and have proven benefits for memory, and I’m not getting any younger. Although the material was presented at a level that sometimes felt too simple for me, I appreciate the difficulty of writing about such complex material for a general audience, and turned to the Appendix for scholarly references to the material that most interested me.
For my friends who do have family members with Alzheimer’s, or who are worrying about their own memories, I’ll be heartily recommending this book. The friendly and positive tone of the book left me feeling hopeful about a topic that is generally frightening: it’s not too late to start, and the authors will help you make these simple changes that will keep your brain as healthy as possible, for the rest of your life.
The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program: Keep Your Brain Healthy for the Rest of Your Life
By Gary Small, MD and Gigi Vorgan
Workman Publishing Company: December 17, 2011
Hardcover, 288 pages