Mimi Steffens was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease about six years years ago. Since then, the 83-year-old retired math teacher has published a book on county school houses in Pennsylvania, started a support group for other early-stage Alzheimer’s patients, and shown improvements on certain tests that measure cognitive ability. As a volunteer and voice for the Alzheimer’s Association, she presents a surprisingly hopeful picture of what the future of living with early-stage Alzheimer’s could look like.
I have to admit: When I saw that Steffens was scheduled to speak at the Alzheimer’s conference I attended in May, I didn’t expect to be in for a particularly interesting, or inspiring, session. Stories of Alzheimer’s patients in the media tend to focus on the heartbreak (a heartbreak that hits all too close to home for anyone who’s watched a loved one progress through the disease). Just that day, the Wall Street Journal had run a story on “the curse” of early Alzheimer’s detection.
But Steffens, diagnosed at 77 with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease—the most common form of dementia, and one that currently affects about 5.4 million Americans—said she is glad she was diagnosed early, with only mild memory problems and cognitive impairment. “If I hadn’t been diagnosed early, I wouldn’t be able to sit here and talk to you,” said Steffens.
Getting that diagnosis not only allowed Steffens to make decisions about her own future care (things like putting two of her six children in charge of medical decisions, giving one son control over her financial affairs, picking out a facility near her daughter in Denver where she can eventually move into assisted living and/or a special ‘memory-care’ unit), it allowed her to take steps to try and slow the progression of the disease.
With the other members of her early-stage Alzheimer’s support group, Steffens has been researching and following “best practices” for dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, based on recent scientific and medical evidence. This includes taking her meds properly and regularly (right now, there are drugs that can help slow the cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s but not treat the underlying disease), strenuous physical exercise several times a week, “mental exercise” and keeping busy/socializing. It also includes following a Mediterranean diet and taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements.
“I think the best practices are working,” Steffens said. “I’m ahead cognitively of where I was 5 years ago, and that’s not supposed to happen” with Alzheimer’s disease.
Indeed, it’s not; Alzheimer’s is a disease marked by progressive cognitive decline. That things like diet, exercise and the presence of other conditions — diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol — could contribute to the development or progression of Alzheimer’s is a relatively new (and controversial) finding.
“The big issues we have with prevention is we don’t have enough scientific evidence,” said Harry Johns, president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association, speaking at the same conference. Nonetheless, the kind of diet and physical activity that’s supposed to be good for your brain is also good for your body, for preventing other diseases and for maintaining a healthy weight. As Johns put it: Healthy living can’t hurt.
The one preventative area where there’s most evidence so far is physical activity. The research on exercise and its effect on brain health is “new and developing as we speak,” said Johns. But there is “mounting evidence” that it exercise does have a strong protective effect.
Here’s a clip of Steffens from PBS’ 2009 television documentary, Retirement Revolution.