The recent news about legendary University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt was so shocking. She bravely announced that she has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 59. Summitt, who plans to continue coaching, said she is fighting the disease through medications and by challenging her brain through puzzles, math problems and reading. These steps are great, but I’d suggest that there are a couple of other items that Summitt should add to her daily “to do” list as she battles this terrible disease – a renewed commitment to exercise and a healthy diet.
Commit to Exercise
Let’s start with exercise, which needs to be added to Summitt’s routine, if it isn’t already. Angela Lunde, the Mayo Clinic’s health education outreach coordinator, wrote in a 2008 blog, “Through the past several years, population studies have suggested that exercise which raises your heart rate for at least 30 minutes several times a week can lower your risk of Alzheimer’s. Physical activity appears to inhibit Alzheimer’s like brain changes in mice, slowing the development of a key feature of the disease.” She also quoted Dr. Ronald Petersen, the director of the Mayo Clinic’s Alzheimer’s Research Center as saying, “Regular physical exercise is probably the best means we have of preventing Alzheimer’s today, better than medications, better than intellectual activity, better than supplements and diet.”
In 2010, NPR’s Jon Hamilton reported that a National Institutes of Health panel found conflicting information, noting that some studies showed the benefit of exercise to the brain while other studies did not. However, University of Illinois neuroscientist Arthur Kramer still advocated for focus on exercise. “The benefits tend to be on the order of a 20 to 30 percent reduction in being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and other such diseases,” he told NPR. “There are improvements in the chemistry of the (animal’s) brain in terms of the molecules that protect the brain, increases in the number of connections between neurons, which allows us to encode new learning and memory, and even the birth of new neurons in one region of the brain that supports memory.”
Food for Thought
Summitt also may benefit from reviewing her diet. The University of Tennessee coach previously was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, which HealthCentral’s rheumatoid arthritis site describes as “an inflammatory disease that may affect many joints n the body. Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease, mainly characterized by inflammation of the lining, or synovium, of the joints.” I recently created a post on Health Central’s Alzheimer’s site about a study that found that genes that increase Alzheimer’s risk in the elderly are often involved with cholesterol and inflammation. Did you notice that the word “inflammation” keeps popping up here?
It turns out that diet can help control inflammation. As I reported in my Alzheimer's sharepost, Dr. Andrew Weil, who is a clinical professor of medicine and the director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, encourages adoption of an anti-inflammatory diet. “The Anti-Inflammatory Diet is not a diet in the popular sense – it is not intended as a weight-loss program (although people can and do lose weight on it), nor is it an eating plan to stay on for a limited period of time. Rather, it is a way of selecting and preparing foods based on scientific knowledge of how they can help your body maintain optimum health. Along with influencing inflammation, this diet will provide steady energy and ample vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, dietary fiber, and protect phytonutrients.”
Getting a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is terrifying. But in the early stages, I believe it’s important to take steps to feel like you’re in control by making lifestyle decisions that may help slow this disease. Hopefully, Coach Summitt will add exercise and an anti-inflammatory diet to her lifestyle battle plan as she begins her fight against this disease.
Published On: August 31, 2011