Reducing Risk for Cognitive Decline in Your 20's, 30's and Beyond

By James Campbell

When we think about reducing the risk of disease, contradictions come to mind: the friend who ate right and exercised but had a heart attack at 50 vs. the relative who lived happily into his 90’s despite smoking and rarely walking more than a block. "Reducing Risk for Cognitive Decline in Your 20’s, 30’s and Beyond: What is or isn’t in our control?," CaringKind’s 28th Annual Meeting, brought together a panel of experts on October 26 to address what these contradictions mean for Alzheimer’s disease.

Board Co-Chair Benjamin Jenkins commenced the event by welcoming guests and thanking the meeting’s sponsors, Bill and Jane Brachfeld and the RBC Foundation USA. Following his remarks, CaringKind President & CEO Lou-Ellen Barkan framed the evening by recalling her mother’s interest in controlling her weight through diet. A key theme she shared was “connecting what we eat to who we are and who become.” At the same time, she noted, there are less malleable factors, such as a person’s sex, that might increase the probability of cognitive decline.

Barkan then handed the stage to Dr. Max Gomez, Emmy Award-winning WCBS-TV journalist who has moderated several CaringKind events, this time leading the discussion in front of a record audience. Joining Dr. Gomez were Richard S. Isaacson, MD, and Sarah Janicki, MD, MPH.

Dr. Isaacson brought his expertise in Alzheimer’s disease risk reduction and treatment. Dr. Isaacson is the director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic, Weill Cornell Memory Disorders Program, and director of the Neurology Residency Training Program at Weill Cornell Medical College/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital as well as the bestselling author of The Alzheimer’s Diet: A Step-By Step Nutritional Approach for Memory Loss Prevention & Treatment.

In her work, Dr. Janicki uses different analyses to research the ways hormones influence the risk of cognitive decline in certain populations. Dr. Janicki is an assistant professor of neurology at the Lucy G. Moses Center for Memory and Behavioral Disorders in the Neurological Institute of New York at Columbia University and a faculty member of the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center at Columbia University Medical Center.

Dr. Gomez was careful to bear in mind that many reject the idea that Alzheimer’s is preventable, prompting Dr. Isaacson to respond to those who’ve had family members who “do everything right,” only to succumb to Alzheimer’s. “The key,” Dr. Isaacson said, “is that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach” to risk reduction. Instead, “the field is going to a more personalized approach,” where each person’s genes, metabolic, endocrine, cardiac and other medical profiles should influence an individualized method to reduce the risk of cognitive decline. He also emphasized that genes are not necessarily destiny, but that they work in concert with the environment, diet, exercise and other factors.

Dr. Janicki echoed the personalized method by emphasizing work being done with massive genetic datasets to develop “a genetic fingerprint” for each patient. Though a genetic fingerprint might be inalterable, she cited modifiable risk factors. One such factor is education, and Dr. Janicki called upon the audience to tell their younger family members to stay intellectually active through their teens, 20’s, and 30’s.

Following a Q&A, Executive Vice President, Director of Programs & Services, Jed A. Levine, closed the evening by highlighting the role advancements in medicine played in the preceding discussion.

James Campbell is a freelance writer based in New York City. He holds an MA in International Affairs from The New School and has written for various academic and human rights organizations.