Recently, i asked top financial advisors attending a roundtable to write down the biggest fear expressed by their clients who were in their 50s, 60s and 70s.
The advisors’ initial responses revolved around running out of money – whether due to unexpected health issues, inflation or the need to support parents or children.
Then, a woman who manages $500 million for 150 households offered another concern for discussion: “For my clients, the biggest issue has nothing to do with money. The nightmare scenario for my clients is developing Alzheimer’s disease and becoming a burden to their spouse and especially to their children.”
That comment sparked a vigorous exchange among the advisors, in which they talked about their encounters with clients suffering from dementia and the toll that disease takes on their families. Upon further discussion, the advisors universally agreed that running into health problems is their clients’ biggest concern, with dementia at the top of the list.
In early November, I attended a talk about new research on brain fitness, delivered by Dr. William Reichman, CEO of Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto, past president of the American Association of Geriatric Psychiatry and an internationally known expert in geriatric mental health and dementia care. His talk outlined emerging research on how people in their 50s and 60s can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s as they age.
Reichman began by talking about how Alzheimer’s is becoming the top concern for baby boomers in their 50s and 60s – what heart disease was for their parents and what cancer was for their grandparents.
Today, Alzheimer’s is the No. 1 cause of dementia, with no current prevention or cure. This has significant implications on both an individual level and a societal level. The number of people suffering from Alzheimer’s has increased over the past 10 years by almost 40% to 35 million from 25 million, driven by the proportional size of the elderly population. Experts at the University of California, Los Angeles, estimate that due to the aging population and late diagnosis, Alzheimer’s could become a full-blown “public health crisis,” with a projection of more than 100 million Alzheimer’s patients by 2050.
A research team led by Dr. Ron Brookmeyer at UCLA found that the rate of diagnosis with Alzheimer’s in older people doubles every five years. Today, the probability of such a diagnosis at age 77 is 1%; by age 82, it is 2%; and by 87, it’s 4%.
– Reducing the risk
Reichman made clear in his talk that based on current research, Alzheimer’s cannot be prevented.
He showed a news headline from 2013 referring to a call by the Group of Eight developed countries to mount a co-ordinated international fight against Alzheimer’s – similar to the global fight against AIDS – with the goal of finding an effective treatment by 2015. But, he emphasized, we shouldn’t count on this initiative succeeding.
However, Reichman did identify four factors that can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s if begun in middle life: physical exercise; good nutrition; cognitive exercises; and lifestyle decisions.
Reichman pointed to research that indicates six months of regular, moderate physical exercise alters brain activity and produces significant improvements in cognitive functioning. In fact, many boomers have built physical exercise into their lives, prompted by popular books such as Younger Next Year – a book that two of the advisors who participated in the roundtable send to clients as retirement gifts.
Regarding nutritional choices, Reichman talked about research showing that diets associated with lower levels of heart disease also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. One example is a diet high in antioxidant foods such as berries, raisins, tomatoes and leafy green vegetables. Also in this category is the so-called “Mediterranean diet” with its focus on cold-water fish, vegetables and olive oil, and an avoidance of animal fats. Reichman said there is no evidence supporting the use of vitamins and dietary supplements unless a deficiency is identified.
When Reichman talked about cognitive exercises, he expressed skepticism about some of the commercial “brain games” available online, such as Lumosity, which paid a $2 million fine this year to settle charges by the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive advertising. Instead, he pointed to a large research study on the impact of small, group training sessions for seniors. Participants in the study, who had an average age of 74, were exposed to 10 sessions on memory, reasoning and processing speed. Tested five years and 10 years later, the study’s participants showed improved reasoning ability and reduced risk of dementia.
Reichman devoted a significant portion of his talk to discussing the lifestyle decisions that research shows can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s:
– Reducing stress
Anything that controls your stress level is beneficial. Reichman cited listening to music, meditation and mindfulness training as examples.
– Work complexity
The more complex your work and the more your mind is challenged, the more you reduce the odds of encountering Alzheimer’s.
– Exposure to new situations
Trying new experiences is another way to keep the mind active and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. Reichman talked about the benefits of changing routines by incorporating a variety of activities.
As an example, for people who regularly complete crossword puzzles, he advocated trying sudoku, bridge or other activities that exercise different parts of the brain.
– Recreational activity
Anything that keeps people active is beneficial. Reichman pointed to studies with healthy seniors in which weekly, 90-minute autobiographical writing sessions over an eight-week period improved brain processing speed, verbal learning and attention.
He talked about how healthy seniors exposed to nine sessions of theater training over four weeks improved memory recall, problem-solving and emotional well-being.
Reichman also discussed research on how leisurely dancing can increase blood flow to the brain and, for patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease, reduce symptoms and improve mood.
– Social engagement. Reichman finished by pointing to research on the positive impact of social engagement. In one study, seniors who did volunteer work in schools with pupils in kindergarten to Grade 3 for 15 hours per week, whether working in the library or tutoring, showed an improvement in the seniors’ cognitive function. At the same time, the children these seniors interacted with experienced enhanced learning as a result of their interactions.
Reichman also discussed an initiative at Baycrest called the Bravo Project, in which 200 volunteers ages 55 and over regularly help out with residents of the seniors’ home.
After one year, the volunteers showed improved physical health, improved cognitive test performance and improved overall well-being. Along similar lines, the Dalai Lama wrote an article published in the New York Times last month that discussed the universal need to be needed, as well as research on how senior citizens who didn’t feel useful were three times as likely to die prematurely as those who did.
– Memory test
If you engage your clients in conversations about all the aspects of their lives rather than just discussing their money, chances are that you will hear about parents and family members who are suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Reichman wrapped up his talk by pointing to a free online test hosted by Baycrest (www.cogniciti.com) that can help people of ages 50 to 79 find out whether their memory is normal or they need to see a doctor. An investment of 20 minutes can pay big dividends in your clients’ peace of mind.
Dan Richards is CEO of Clientinsights (www.clientinsights.ca) in Toronto. For more of Dan’s columns and informative videos, visit www.investmentexecutive.com.
© 2016 Investment Executive. All rights reserved.