Celebrate brain health and research during brain awareness week

Brain Awareness Week, taking place from March 16 to 22, is a global campaign run by the Dana Foundation in order to increase public awareness of the progress and benefit of brain research. While there is still much to be discovered about Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, immense progress has been made over the past hundred years.

At one time all memory changes in older people were considered a normal part of aging. Now however, progressive memory loss is considered (rather than symbolized) dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia accounting for approximately 65 percent of all dementias.

In 1906, Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German neurologist discovered abnormalities in brain tissue during an autopsy of a 51 year-old female patient. The patient suffered profound memory loss, confusion and severe psychological irregularities. Upon further examination, Dr. Alzheimer noted “plaques and tangles” in her brain that today signify characteristic features of Alzheimer’s disease. 

The next 50 years saw Alzheimer’s disease become more prominent and newsworthy, although it took until the 1960s before Alzheimer’s became officially recognized as a disease. After the development of a clinically accepted cognitive measurement scale doctors were able to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease with reasonable accuracy. For more information about Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, click here.

In 1993, Canadian scientist Dr. Judes Poirier’s breakthrough research identified the Apolipoprotein E as a genetic risk factor in Alzheimer’s disease. However, not all people with this gene develop Alzheimer’s disease.

The Canadian government approved the first drug for symptomatic treatment of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease in 1997. Clinical trials revealed some patients who took the drug demonstrated improvement, or no decline in cognition and activities of daily living. Developed for patients in early to mid-stages of the disease, it became a source of hope for Alzheimer’s patients. For more information on treatment options, click here.

There is currently no cure for dementia. However, while total prevention is not possible, there are things people can do to reduce their risk.

1. Healthy heart equals healthy brain

The message rings loud and clear: what’s good for your heart is good for your brain. Keeping your heart healthy includes decreasing cardiovascular risk factors while simultaneously increasing those that benefit the heart such as regular physical activity and healthy eating. It’s suggested that because physical activity can reduce cardiovascular risk factors, it can indirectly assist in reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and that exercise may directly benefit brain cells by increasing blood and oxygen flow to the brain. For more information on the benefits of physical activity to the brain, visit our ‘Be physically active’ page.

2. Education and brain training

Research findings from the World Alzheimer Report 2014 indicate that "Overall there appears to be a protective effect of education against developing dementia later in life … suggesting the reduction in risk may be around 40 per cent.” The report also proposes that brain function rather than brain size may help protect one from dementia. There are many activities that a person can do to challenge their brain health. By doing this, you will be engaging new or little used mental pathways. For examples of activities and to learn more, visit our ‘challenge yourself’  page.

3. Hypertension in midlife

Research suggests that hypertension in midlife increases the risk of dementia, particularly vascular dementia. In addition, type 2 diabetes can be a risk factor for dementia. Therefore, maintaining normal blood pressure particularly in midlife appears proactive in reducing risk factors. For more information on risk factors, click here

By understanding dementia research, people may feel better equipped when it comes to their own brain health. Remember, it’s never too late to start exercising regularly, to increase brain function, and to eat healthily. All these measures have the potential to reduce the risk of dementia, even in later life. If this information has inspired you to not only get more involved with your own brain health, but to inspire others to take a similar action, visit our 'Get Involved' section of the website.

Last Updated: 03/16/2015