6 Key things to Help Prevent Alzheimer’s

Today is the last day of National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month and we want to encourage everyone to think about Alzheimer’s the same way you would any disease or chronic health issue – and that is prevention. While most people begin to exhibit symptoms around 65, there is a small percentage, around 5%, that will develop early-onset Alzheimer’s developing symptoms in there 40’s and 50’s.

Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating illness that affects over 27 million people worldwide. It is the more prevalent form of dementia, which is a loss of cognitive ability. The symptoms of Alzheimer’s include confusion, short-term memory loss, mood swings, and difficulties using language. Eventually, the brain becomes so damaged that bodily functions become impaired, leading to death. Death typically occurs within ten years of diagnosis.

Having just lost my mother to Alzheimer’s I wish I had taken more notice of the signs early on. Even though I live in a different country, every time we spoke on the phone I noticed things — she was getting more confused and there were definite language issues. By the time most people take action it’s too late, so I urge you to take preventative measures with healthy lifestyle changes as early as you can.

Researchers have discovered that it may be possible to prevent or delay the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias through a combination of healthy habits. By identifying and controlling your personal risk factors, you can maximize your chances of lifelong brain health and take effective steps to preserve your cognitive abilities.

While there is hopeful progress with medications, you can’t afford to wait.

6 Key Actions to Help Reduce Your Risk:

  1. Regular Exercise

According to the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation, regular physical exercise can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by up to 50 percent. What’s more, exercise can also slow further deterioration in those who have already started to develop cognitive problems. Exercise protects against Alzheimer’s by stimulating the brain’s ability to maintain old connections as well as make new ones.

  • Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week.  The ideal plan involves a combination of cardio exercise and strength training. Good activities for beginners include walking and swimming.
  • Build muscle to pump up your brain.   Moderate levels of weight and resistance training not only increase muscle mass, they help you maintain brain health. For those over 65, adding 2-3 strength sessions to your weekly routine may cut your risk of Alzheimer’s in half.
  • Include balance and coordination exercises.  Head injuries from falls are an increasing risk as you age, which in turn increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Balance and coordination exercises can help you stay agile and avoid spills. Try yoga, Tai Chi, or exercises using balance balls.
  1. Social Engagement

Human beings are highly social creatures. We don’t thrive in isolation, and neither do our brains. Staying socially engaged may even protect against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in later life, so make developing and maintaining a strong network of friends a priority. While many of us become more isolated as we get older, it’s never too late to meet others and develop new friendships:

  • Volunteer
  • Join a club or social group
  • Visit your local community center or senior center
  • Take group classes (such as at the gym or a community college)
  • Go dancing
  • Reach out over the phone or email
  • Connect to others via social networks such as Facebook
  • Get to know your neighbors
  • Make a weekly date with friends
  • Get out (go to the movies, the park, museums, and other public places)
  • Make friends with younger people
  1. Healthy Eating

With Alzheimer’s disease, inflammation and insulin resistance injure neurons and inhibit communication between brain cells. Alzheimer’s is sometimes described as “diabetes of the brain,” and a growing body of research suggests a strong link between metabolic disorders and the signal processing systems. By adjusting your eating habits, however, you can help reduce inflammation and protect your brain.

  • Cut down on sugar.  Sugary foods and refined carbs such as white flour, white rice, and pasta can lead to dramatic spikes in blood sugar, which inflame your brain. Also look out for hidden sugar in all kinds of packaged foods – check labels carefully.
  • Adopt a Mediterranean diet.  Several epidemiological studies show that eating a Mediterranean diet dramatically reduces the risk of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Avoid trans fats.  These fats can cause inflammation and produce free radicals—both of which are hard on the brain. Reduce your consumption by avoiding fast food, fried and packaged foods, and anything that contains “partially hydrogenated oils,” even if it claims to be trans fat-free.
  • Get plenty of omega-3 fats.  Evidence suggests that the DHA found in these healthy fats may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia by reducing beta-amyloid plaques. Food sources include cold-water fish such as salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, seaweed, and sardines. You can also supplement with fish oil.
  • Stock up on fruit and vegetables.  When it comes to fruits and vegetables, the more the better. Eat up across the color spectrum to maximize protective antioxidants and vitamins, including green leafy vegetables, berries, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli.
  • Drink more tea. Regular consumption of green tea may enhance memory and mental alertness and slow brain aging. White and oolong teas are also particularly brain healthy. Drinking 2-4 cups daily has proven benefits.
  1. Sleep 

It’s common for people with Alzheimer’s disease to suffer from insomnia and other sleep problems. But new research suggests that disrupted sleep isn’t just a symptom of Alzheimer’s, but a possible risk factor. An increasing number of studies have linked poor sleep to higher levels of beta-amyloid, a sticky brain-clogging protein that in turn further interferes with sleep—especially with the deep sleep necessary for memory formation. Other studies emphasize the importance of uninterrupted sleep for flushing out brain toxins. Most adults need at least 8 hours of sleep per night and here are some tips make sure you get your zzzz’s.

  • Get screened for sleep apnea. If you’ve received complaints about your snoring, you may want to get tested for sleep apnea, a potentially dangerous condition where breathing is disrupted during sleep. Treatment can make a huge difference in both your health and sleep quality.
  • Establish a regular sleep schedule. Going to bed and getting up at the same time reinforces your natural circadian rhythms. Your brain’s clock responds to regularity.
  • Be smart about napping. While taking a nap can be a great way to recharge, especially for older adults, it can make insomnia worse. If insomnia is a problem for you, consider eliminating napping. If you must nap, do it in the early afternoon, and limit it to thirty minutes.
  • Set the mood. Ban television and computers from the bedroom (both are stimulating and may lead to difficulties falling asleep).
  • Create a relaxing bedtime ritual. Take a hot bath, do some light stretches, write in your journal, or dim the lights. As it becomes a habit, your nightly ritual will send a powerful signal to your brain that it’s time for deep restorative sleep.
  • Quiet your inner chatter. When stress, anxiety, or negative internal dialogues keep you awake, get out of bed. Try reading or relaxing in another room for twenty minutes then hop back in.
  1. Manage Stress

Chronic or persistent stress can take a heavy toll on the brain, leading to shrinkage in a key memory area, hamper nerve cell growth, and increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Yet simple stress management tools can minimize its harmful effects.

Get your stress levels in check with these proven techniques

  • Breathe! Quiet your stress response with deep, abdominal breathing. Restorative breathing is powerful, simple, and free!
  • Schedule daily relaxation activities.Keeping stress under control requires regular effort. Make relaxation a priority, whether it’s a walk in the park, playtime with your dog, yoga, or a soothing bath.
  • Nourish inner peace. Regular meditation, prayer, reflection, and religious practice may immunize you against the damaging effects of stress.
  • Make fun a priority. All work and no play is not good for your stress levels or your brain.Make time for leisure activities that bring you joy, whether it be stargazing, playing the piano, or working on your bike.
  • Maintain your sense of humor.This includes the ability to laugh at yourself. The act of laughing helps your body fight stress.
  1. Mental Stimulation

Those who continue learning new things throughout life and challenging their brains are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. In essence, you need to “use it or lose it.” In the groundbreaking NIH ACTIVE study, older adults who received as few as 10 sessions of mental training not only improved their cognitive functioning in daily activities in the months after the training but continued to show long-lasting improvements 10 years later.

  • Learn something new.Study a foreign language, practice a musical instrument, read the newspaper or a good book, play video games or take up a new hobby. The greater the novelty and challenge, the greater the benefit.
  • Practice memorization.Start with something short, progressing to something a little more involved, such as the 50 U.S. state capitals. Create rhymes and patterns to strengthen your memory connections.
  • Enjoy strategy games, puzzles, and riddles.Brain teasers and strategy games provide a great mental workout and build your capacity to form and retain cognitive associations. Do a crossword puzzle, play board games, cards, or word and number games such as Scrabble or Sudoku.
  • Practice the 5 W’s.Observe and report like a crime detective. Keep a “Who, What, Where, When, and Why” list of your daily experiences. Capturing visual details keeps your neurons firing.
  • Follow the road less traveled.Take a new route, eat with your non-dominant hand, rearrange your computer file system. Vary your habits regularly to create new brain pathways.

Other tips to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s

Just as what’s good for the body is also good for the brain, so too is the converse: what’s bad for the body is bad for the brain.

  • Stop smoking.Smoking is one of the most preventable risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. One study found that smokers over the age of 65 have a nearly 80% higher risk of Alzheimer’s than those who have never smoked. When you stop smoking, the brain benefits from improved circulation almost immediately.
  • Control blood pressure and cholesterol levels.Both high blood pressure and high total cholesterol are associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Improving those numbers are good for your brain as well as your heart.
  • Watch your weight.Extra pounds are a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. A major study found that people who were overweight in midlife were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s down the line, and those who were obese had three times the risk. Losing weight can go a long way to protecting your brain.
  • Drink only in moderation.While there appear to be brain benefits in consuming red wine in moderation, heavy alcohol consumption can dramatically raise the risk of Alzheimer’s and accelerate brain aging.
Sue Taggart