Centered Pendulum

It is our firm belief that lifelong patterns of “being” (personality, attitudes, emotions) and “doing” (lifestyle, adaptability, coping skills) interact with our genes and environment to create conditions of a healthy or a diseased brain.

Volume 2, Number 23                                                                            November 18, 2002

The Centered Pendulum is a free e-mail newsletter written by Darlene Weaver and Dr. John Weaver. It is published bi-weekly. You’ve received this newsletter because you’ve subscribed to it or it was forwarded to you by a friend or colleague. To subscribe sign up at our website,  If you wish to unsubscribe, please see the end of this e-mail for easy instructions.

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 In our first issue, we promised our readers that, in our writings about avoiding Alzheimer’s disease and promoting a healthy brain, “we will attempt to identify some of the healthy lifestyle patterns that are known, and give you our best guess about some patterns we believe will be healthy (and we will tell you when there is general agreement about healthy patterns and when we are making a reasonable guess.)”

In this newsletter we offer a summary.  What do we know about Alzheimer’s disease?  What are some of the health-patterns that are not clearly known to be factors in the development of Alzheimer’s but may be related? 

WHAT WE KNOW:  Individuals with 2 copies of the APOE 4 gene are highly susceptible to developing Alzheimer’s disease.  One copy of the AOE 4 gene increases the risk of the disease.  There are APOE 1, APOE 2, and APOE 3 genes.  There are very small increases in risk associated with various combinations of these genes. 

WHAT WE BELIEVE:  The known genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease account for approximately 25% of the risks for development of the disease.  We do not know what factors account for the other 75% of the risk at this time.  Genetic factors are those we know most about, but there is much to learn.  It is possible that additional genetic risk factors will be discovered and there is currently intensive research in this area.  It is also possible (and we believe likely) that lifestyle factors will also prove to be very important in the understanding of the risks of the disease. 

Some genetic researchers are also linking the APOE 4 gene to a greater susceptibility to many stress related disorders.  Genetic factors, environmental factors (the situations and circumstances in which we live), and personal choice may interact in a complex way to yield a specific outcome.  Because Alzheimer’s is generally not diagnosed until late life, and because we believe that it is likely that the disease may have a very long progression (as much as 40 years) it will be difficult to definitively point to a single factor that will cause Alzheimer’s.  Most of the major illnesses we deal with in our society today (i.e., cancers or heart disease) have complex causes that include genes, environment and personal choice. 

WHAT WE KNOW:  High cholesterol appears to be associated with a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.  High blood pressure (hypertension) also increases the risk. 

WHAT WE BELIEVE:  It appears that what is good for the heart is also good for the brain.  This may be even more important than it appears in research because some individuals die from heart disease before reaching the age when the risk of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s peaks.  Maintaining good habits that decrease the risk of heart disease (lowering blood pressure, eating a low-fat diet, getting regular exercise) will certainly improve our overall health and seems likely to promote a healthy brain as we age. 

Recently new research suggests that hypertension (high blood pressure) is a phenomenon of industrialized societies.  There is no known problem with hypertension in more “primitive” hunter-gatherer societies.  This would support an hypothesis that Alzheimer’s may be strongly influenced by lifestyle factors. 

WHAT WE KNOW:  Taking 200 to 400 IUs (International Units) of Vitamin E (most effective when taken with Vitamin C) at least delays and may decrease the risks for Alzheimer’s disease.  Vitamin E has also been shown to reduce risk for heart disease, cancer, and to boost the immune system functions. 

WHAT WE BELIEVE: Vitamin E is probably helpful because it is an anti-oxidant.  Anti-oxidants diminish damage done to cells by single molecules of oxygen (called “free radicals”) that do not get utilized by the body’s metabolic processes.   

We know that another way to reduce the damage done by free radicals is to increase the efficiency of our metabolism through exercise.  It is likely that an effective exercise program will reduce our risks for Alzheimer’s.  It is also known that some vegetables have anti-oxidant qualities.  Foods like broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach may be useful additions to a diet that promotes brain health. 

WHAT WE KNOW:  Head trauma is a risk for Alzheimer’s disease.  Higher levels of education appear to protect an individual from the disease. 

WHAT WE BELIEVE: It is likely that “brain reserve” is a factor in the development of the disease.  The term “brain reserve” is used to describe a function of the brain in which those who have developed the brain’s abilities, through higher education, use of complex language, or by continuously developing new skills appear to be less likely to be diagnosed with the disease or to be diagnosed at a later age in life.  Although head trauma and lower levels of education are associated with increased risk, even these individuals can improve their odds by attempting to learn new skills. 

Engaging in creative endeavors may be the most useful way to stimulate the brain.  By creative, we mean activities in which an individual has not previously become “expert.”  A person who works with his hands begins to do a daily journal.  Another person who is a manager decides she will learn the piano.  Creative, or new, endeavors appear to stimulate much more activity in the brain.  As such it is similar to engaging in a well balanced physical exercise program. 

WHAT WE KNOW: The stress hormone, cortisol, is associated with the destruction of cells in a brain region, the hippocampus, which is a central area for forming new memories. 

WHAT WE BELIEVE: There is no current research that currently makes explicit connections between cortisol levels and the development of Alzheimer’s disease.  It is intriguing, however, that excess cortisol secretion affects a brain region that is known to be one of the earliest regions affected by Alzheimer’s disease.  It is also intriguing that the hippocampus plays a central role in the formation of new memories; and that recent memory is one function that is most noticeably damaged by the disease.  If cortisol is not a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease, it is still likely to diminish “brain reserve,” a factor that does appear to increase our risk for the disease. 

RECENTLY there have been serious questions raised by the role of estrogen in protecting against Alzheimer’s disease. It was thought that hormone replacement therapy would protect the brain, although it was also associated with a higher risk for the development of some kinds of cancers.  That belief is now questionable.  Estrogen replacement may only have temporary benefits.  We recommend you educate yourself and carefully discuss with your doctor before beginning hormone replacement therapy. 

Social support and spirituality may have beneficial protective effects although the research is very limited at this time.  Because we know that both positive social interactions and spirituality have a number of other beneficial effects for health and quality of life, we strongly recommend them. 

Similarly, keeping physically active has not received much attention in relationship to Alzheimer’s disease but it clearly reduces risk for some other serious brain injuries through cerebral vascular accidents (strokes).  We strongly advocate including exercise as a component of a balanced plan for promotion of a healthy brain as we age. 

We also have noticed that individuals who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease often have prominent symptoms of anxiety and depression.  It is possible that the symptoms are reactions to the changes associated with Alzheimer’s but we believe that lifelong patterns of anxiety and depression, untreated, will predispose an individual to develop the disease.  It is also a quality of life issue.  Symptoms of anxiety and depression are treatable. 

We believe that Alzheimer’s disease has many risk factors.  That is one reason why it can be difficult to understand and to treat. We believe that it is important to practice healthy and balanced lifestyles as one way to improve the aging process and to reduce our risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

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Recommended Reading:  Once Again, Wine Boasts Brain-Boosting Benefits. Mon Nov 11,11:52 PM ET. By Randy Dotinga. In another sign that chardonnay and Bordeaux may be as healthful as fruits and vegetables, a new study provides more evidence that wine can protect the brain from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. To read more about this story online:

About the Authors:

Darlene Weaver is the manager of Linden Court; a 20-bed community based residential facility for elders diagnosed with dementia. She is also a graduate student in Gerontology at Mount Mary College. She has 13 years of experience working with elders diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and their families.

Dr. John Weaver is a licensed Psychologist in private practice. He is an expert in stress management and stress "hardiness" skills. In his doctoral project, Dr. Weaver examined the viability of using relaxation techniques to control agitation in dementia patients. He is an experienced public speaker.

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Dr. John Weaver publishes another FREE email newsletter, Psychology for Business. This newsletter is for business leaders who are interested in applying sound psychological science to the problems of the world of work.  Dr. Weaver and his colleagues, Dr. Lynda Dahlke and Dr. Paul Glass are dedicated to bringing out the best in you and your employees. To view past issues or to subscribe, please visit us at our website: