Birth, Babies, and Beyond

Pregnancy, birth, and parenting

The Truth About Alzheimer's Prevention

Hyped Headlines are bad for your Health

Last night, I watched Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove--his 1964 satiric film about the nuclear scare--and one line reminded me about all the stuff you read about Alzheimer's prevention. An Army general explains why he only drinks distilled water, rain water or grain alcohol. You see, he explains to a colleague, he can't drink anything with regular water because of the fluoride. Think about it, he said, fluoride was added to the water right after the start of the Cold War. Obviously, it's a Communist plot to poison Americans.

So what does this have to do with Alzheimer's? Well, anyone who has a relative suffering from the disease must notice, as I do, the flood of stories claiming that a study shows that eating this spice or doing that exercise or playing a certain word game will prevent the disease. It's that same flouride-equals-Communist-plot statistical snafu. 

My father has Alzheimers' and no longer walks, talks or feeds himself. Before illness struck, he used his brain more than most of us (he was a world renowned pathologist) , exercised fanatically (he ran miles at dawn and lifted weights a few times a week), and ate an obsessively healthy diet (avoiding junk food and red meat). And yet, all of this preventive stuff seemed to have no impact whatsoever. Yes, I know these studies are about public health and he is one individual. But it does make me cringe when I read the "how-to-prevent-Alzheimer's" headlines.

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So I was so relieved so see Pam Belluck's news analysis in today's New York Times Science Section. She writes about the recent studies (one new one estimated how many cases of Alzheimer's may be attributable to either physical inactivity, smoking, depression or other behaviors) and points out that every single one says "could" help. None of them say anything definitive. And while scientists reading the studies clearly see the difference between a glimmer of an idea and conclusive evidence, few people skimming the hyped-up headlines do.

Everyone wants good news and hope. And when you can tell someone to eat healthy and exercise doctors figure it may not have anything to do with warding off Alzheimer's, but it can't hurt. But it can. We are supposed to share the truth, not pander to a public yearning for easy preventive steps. 

Bravo to Belluck for telling it like it is. She writes that the only thing a panel of experts at the National Institutes of Health found was strong evidence that the herb gingko does not prevent Alzheimer's. "Evidence for or against any other causal factor was poor, often because studies were small, used vague or changing definitions, or did not rigorously monitor what subjects were doing," she writes. Dr. Martha Daviglus, the panel's chairwoman who is also a professor at Northwestern University, added that the members of the team debated how to relay the bad news but they knew they wanted the public to realize that "at this point nothing that people can sell to them is proven to work."

So exercise and eat right because you'll feel good and you may lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. But unfortunately, for now, there's nothing we can do to avoid Alzheimer's. The one thing my father and his illness have taught me is that you need to really enjoy the moment and remember the good times when you still can.

 

 

Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D., is the author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.

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