Addressing the common causes of Alzheimer’s to promote a healthy brain
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia and as such, much research has been done on how to prevent the disease.1 We do know that the disease is characterized by two types of proteins in the brain: tangles (tau) and plaques (amyloid beta); as these proteins accumulate they kill brain cells. And we know a little bit about what triggers these proteins.
While doctors at the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital say that no one knows for sure what causes Alzheimer’s, they have identified three genes that relate to amyloid-beta production; if you have these three genes, you are likely to develop Alzheimer’s. 1 However, this only applies to 1% of the Alzheimer’s patients today. So, what are the more common causes of the disorder?
Common Causes of Alzheimer’s
While there are many medical conditions that can contribute to Alzheimer’s, such as inflammation of the brain and vascular risk, there are also lifestyle factors which can contribute to the onset of the disease. These will vary with every individual but clinical research indicates that exercise, diet, sleep, mental stimulation and staying socially connected can all have an impact. By addressing these causes, you can make your brain more resilient to the early signs of dementia.
Healthy Lifestyle Factors That Can Ward Off Alzheimer’s
Physical Exercise. “The most convincing evidence is that physical exercise helps prevent the development of Alzheimer’s or slow the progression in people who have symptoms,” says Dr. Gad Marshall, associate medical director of clinical trials at the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment. “The recommendation is 30 minutes of moderately vigorous aerobic exercise, three to four days per week.” This doesn’t have to involve jumping through hoops but could be a brisk walk or a low impact physical activity like swimming or water aerobics. No pool? Consider a stationary bicycle or even a dance class where the aerobic exercise is augmented by the mental challenge of remembering steps, the hand-eye coordination and the balance required. All good things to help ensure healthy longevity.
Diet. Many diets have also been shown to thwart Alzheimer’s or slow its progression, most notably the Mediterranean diet which includes fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, olive oil, beans, fish, some poultry and dairy. Long heralded as a diet that protects against cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, epidemiology now suggests the Mediterranean Diet can also promote cognitive health, mitigating the risks of Alzheimer’s disease, by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress.
Other brain-healthy diets include:
- The DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) which emphasizes high consumption of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, lean meats, nuts, and beans and has proven2 to significantly reduce blood pressure in those with moderate hypertension. Hypertension damages blood vessels in the brain and is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s.
- The MIND diet, which includes the best foods for brain health from the DASH and Mediterranean diets. This diet emphasizes green leafy vegetables (rather than all vegetables), berries (rather than all fruit), nuts, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and moderate amounts of alcohol (preferably red wine). A recent study in Neurology found that seniors who had daily helpings of leafy green vegetables — such as spinach, kale and collard greens — had a slower rate of cognitive decline. 3
Sleep. Do not underestimate the value of sleep! Experts claim we need seven to eight hours a night and, according to Dr. Marshall, “Growing evidence suggests that improved sleep can help prevent Alzheimer’s and is linked to greater amyloid clearance from the brain.” So, insomniacs listen up. Sleeplessness and sleep quality have been associated with altered levels of markers for beta-amyloid, tau, and inflammation in the spinal fluid, all of which are associated with Alzheimer’s.
If you don’t get enough sleep, protect your brain and lower your risk for Alzheimer’s disease by establishing a bedtime routine, maintaining a regular sleep schedule. Don’t eat or exercise within two to three hours of bedtime and avoid overuse of sleeping pills and excessive alcohol consumption.
Other lifestyle changes to help curb dementia and Alzheimer’s include:
- Managing Stress. Studies also suggest that stress and hypertension increase the risk of both vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease4. Do what you can to keep hypertension under control and protect against cognitive decline.
- Mental Stimulation. Reduce Alzheimer’s risk by stimulating your brain. Read books, do crossword puzzles, or play card games. Keep your brain active; don’t let it atrophy. You need an active mind as well as an active body to keep your brain healthy.
- Social Interaction. While only based on observational studies, Alzheimer’s experts believe that social engagement promotes healthy aging and can help prevent the disease1. Again, this keeps the mind engaged, and social interaction can be nurturing on many fronts. The isolated recluse is far more likely to be depressed and to suffer from cognitive decline.
Improve your long-term brain health and do what you can now to protect yourself from developing Alzheimer’s. Even if you are not at risk genetically to the disease, these lifestyle choices are going to promote healthy longevity.