Understanding Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias can be complex, especially when it comes to prevention.
However, progress is being made. Thanks to genetic research, clinical trials, observational studies and other medical research, scientists are learning more about what causes Alzheimer’s. They have also identified the risk factors associated with it and other forms of dementia. Research also shows that while Alzheimer’s can’t necessarily be prevented, there are ways to minimize your risk.
Let’s begin by understanding what appears to cause these cognitive disorders and the risk factors associated with them.
What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia. Dementia is a deterioration in cognitive function beyond what might be expected from normal aging. It affects memory, clear thinking, language skills and orientation. It reduces comprehension, learning capacity and judgment.
We know that the disease is characterized by two types of proteins in the brain: tangles (tau) and plaques (beta amyloid). As these proteins accumulate, they kill brain cells and block neural pathways. These beta-amyloid protein deposits are believed to be one of the main causes of Alzheimer’s.
Scientists are also learning what seems to trigger these toxic proteins. Sometimes it’s a genetic proclivity but often it is lifestyle-related.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s usually occurs in younger people between the ages of 30 and 60. It is often (but not always) a result of a genetic mutation.
Late-onset Alzheimer’s may be genetic and has been clinically linked to a gene called ApoE (apolipoprotein E). However, it is more likely a result of brain changes caused by lifestyle and environmental impacts. In other words, inherited genes aren’t the only cause of Alzheimer’s.
While we can’t change our genetic profile and there is no known way to prevent Alzheimer’s, we can change our lifestyle to reduce our risk. According to a report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) earlier this year, people can reduce the risk of cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
While genetics play a part in Alzheimer’s, let’s look at the non-genetic risk factors that can contribute to the ailment.
How to Prevent Alzheimer’s – 9 Strategies to Reduce Your Risk
Strategies for preventing the onset of cognitive disease will vary with every individual but clinical research continues to indicate that healthy lifestyles can make our brains more resilient.
- Physical exercise. “The most convincing evidence is that physical exercise helps prevent the development of Alzheimer’s and can 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. Thirty minutes of moderately vigorous aerobic exercise, three to four days per week is recommended. This doesn’t have to involve jumping through hoops. Stick with the exercises that you enjoy, but build physical activity into your daily routine.
- Take a brisk walk with a friend.
- Consider a low-impact physical activity like swimming or riding a stationary bicycle.
- A dance class is an especially good form of brain-healthy exercise. It is aerobic and also provides the mental challenge of remembering dance steps, hand-eye coordination and balance.
- If you ride a bus, get off a couple of bus stops ahead of your usual stop and walk the distance.
- Diet. Many diets have been shown to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.
- The Mediterranean Diet has proven to protect against cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Science now suggests it can also promote cognitive health. It includes fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, olive oil, beans, fish, some poultry and dairy. By reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, this diet can mitigate the risks of Alzheimer’s disease.
- The DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) encourages high consumption of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, lean meats, nuts, and beans. It has proven 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, includes the best foods for brain health from the DASH and Mediterranean diets. It emphasizes green leafy vegetables which is supported by a recent study reported in Neurology, which 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. The MIND diet is also rich in berries, nuts, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, and olive oil. It even allows a moderate amount of alcohol (preferably red wine).
- Common sense dietary guidelines include staying away from processed meats, butter and heavy cream as all are laden with saturated fat. Too much sugar is also dangerous. Sugar is inflammatory and can also lead to unhealthy weight gain.
- Sleep. Do not underestimate the value of sleep! Experts claim we need seven to eight hours a night. 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.” 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. Protect your brain and lower your risk for Alzheimer’s disease by establishing a bedtime routine.
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule
- Don’t eat or exercise within two to three hours of bedtime
- Avoid overuse of sleeping pills and excessive alcohol consumption
- Managing stress. Studies also suggest that stress and hypertension increase the risk of both vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Do what you can to keep hypertension and stress under control to protect against cognitive decline.
- Try yoga, meditation, or deep breathing exercises
- Spend some quiet time in a garden or park or along a peaceful waterfront
- Listen to soothing, relaxing music
- Mental stimulation. Reduce Alzheimer’s risk by stimulating your brain. Read books, do crossword puzzles, or play card games. Keep your brain active so it doesn’t atrophy. You need an active mind as well as an active body to keep your brain healthy.
- Social interaction. Alzheimer’s experts believe that social engagement promotes healthy aging and can help prevent the disease. Engage with family and friends, participate in community activities, take a class. Social interaction keeps the mind engaged and can be nurturing on many fronts. Being alone and reclusive can cause depression and lead to cognitive decline.
- Quit Smoking. Smoking is harmful to your body and your brain.
- Medical conditions. Certain medical conditions can also contribute to the disease. Cognitive decline has been clinically linked to vascular issues like heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and obesity. Problems like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol can take a toll on the brain as well as the body. Maintain healthy blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Specialists at the Stanford Health Care Neuroscience Health Center in Palo Alto, California say that maintaining a healthy weight with exercise and proper diet can help prevent dementia. A poor diet with too much red meat, saturated fat and sugar and a sedentary lifestyle void of any exercise are Alzheimer’s risk factors.
According to WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “In the next 30 years, the number of people with dementia is expected to triple. We need to do everything we can to reduce our risk of dementia.”
Improve your long-term brain health and do what you can now to protect yourself and your loved ones from developing Alzheimer’s. Even if you are not genetically at risk, healthy lifestyle choices will promote healthy longevity.