Taking good care of yourself has always been at the top of my list as the best retirement investment. Out-of-pocket health expenses are the biggest and most uncertain drain on our retirement nest eggs. Diet and exercise thus can yield enormous financial and quality-of-life returns.
I'm back to beat this drum again, following last week's report that Alzheimer's disease may be heavily linked to preventable lifestyle factors, mostly involving health issues. Research released at an international Alzheimer's conference in Paris found that seven risk factors may contribute to as many as three million cases of Alzheimer's in the United States. The operative word here is "may"—more about that later.
Three million is more than half of all current Alzheimer's victims, according to the Alzheimer's Association. And this latest research could be particularly good news for the Alzheimer's train wreck that is heading toward middle-aged Americans. According to research from the association earlier this year:
"It is expected an estimated 10 million baby boomers will develop Alzheimer's. Of those who reach the age of 85, nearly one in two will get it. And because there is no way to prevent, cure or even slow the progression of the disease, every one of these 10 million baby boomers will either die with Alzheimer's or from it."
The research identified potentially modifiable Alzheimer's risk factors in the United States, and the proportion of cases that are potentially attributable to each factor:
Physical inactivity: 21 percent
Depression: 15 percent
Smoking: 11 percent
Mid-life hypertension: 8 percent
Mid-life obesity: 7 percent
Low education: 7 percent
Diabetes: 3 percent
"In the U.S., about one third of the population is sedentary, so a large number of Alzheimer's cases are potentially attributable to physical inactivity," said researcher Deborah Barnes in a prepared statement. "Smoking also contributed to a large percentage of cases because it is unfortunately still very common."
"This suggests that relatively simple lifestyle changes such as increasing physical activity and quitting smoking could have a dramatic impact on the number of Alzheimer's cases over time," she added. Barnes is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California in San Francisco.
The big unknown about the research, she noted, is whether the presumed relationship between the risk factors and Alzheimer's holds up in actual studies of people with these risk factors who eliminate or reduce them through lifestyle changes. "The next step is to perform large-scale intervention studies to really find out whether changing these risk factors will lower the risk of developing Alzheimer's over time," Barnes said.
There are, of course, lots of reasons why all Americans don't immediately go on diets, quit smoking, and put on a happy face. But these findings hopefully will add yet another strong argument in favor of taking better care of ourselves.
Alzheimer's may represent the ultimate trump card for better health. It devastates families and friends, as well as its direct victim. Among my 60-something friends, it is far and away the most feared aging development. That's particularly true among financially secure people who have prided themselves on achieving their goals and having control over their lives. Alzheimer's is the ultimate loss of control.
If you could do anything to minimize the odds that this dreadful disease would attack you and cause so much pain to the people you loved, you'd do it, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you?