While more than 5.8 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease now, that number is likely to increase to 14 million by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association 2019 Facts and Figures Report. The report cites a $290 billion national cost of caring for people with Alzheimer’s, relates that two-thirds of American seniors with Alzheimer’s are female, and says that the frequency of occurrence in this country will rise from every 65 seconds today to every 33 seconds by the middle of the century. More than statistics, the devastating impact of Alzheimer’s on both the individuals suffering from the disease as well as family and friends makes it imperative to do everything possible to reduce risk of Alzheimer’s.
Experts have weighed in on ways to reduce risk of Alzheimer’s, which may be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. This chronic neurodegenerative disease often begins with short-term memory loss and progresses to problems with language, disorientation, mood swings, loss of motivation, social withdrawal, behavioral problems, and hygiene issues. Eventually, people lose control of bodily functions and die.
Let’s first cover the risk factors for Alzheimers, and then offer up 10 ways to protect your brain.
Who’s Got the Greatest Dementia Risk?
According to the American Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease is likely the consequence of a variety of environmental, genetic, and lifestyle factors. Risk factors out of our control include:
- Age: Alzheimer’s is by no means a normal part of the aging process, but it does strike people aged 65 and older, and risk doubles after 65 every 5 years.
- Family history: If a family member has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, your risk for the condition increases.
- Heredity: Genetics can play a role in Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. Alzheimer’s genes have been discovered in both risk genes and deterministic genes, with the latter being responsible for just 1% of all Alzheimer’s diagnoses.
Then there are the lifestyle factors that we do have a certain degree of control over, such as:
- Heart health: Alzheimer’s research has shown a definitive link between heart and brain health. Your brain is, after all, dependent on the heart for nourishment. The cognitive decline that’s a defining characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease is linked to heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Heart-healthy lifestyle choices, aerobic exercise, and nutrition can help keep your heart and brain functioning on all cylinders.
- Head injury: There is evidence that sustaining a head injury may put you at higher risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Always wear a seat belt when driving, a helmet when participating in sports or cycling, and be sure to fall-proof your home.
How to Reduce Your Risk of Alzheimer’s
Here are 10 of the most popular health-enhancing activities people can do to reduce risk of Alzheimer’s.
1. Stimulate the Brain
Keeping the brain challenged is critical to staving off Alzheimer’s, say many experts. According to Jean Carper, author of 100 Simple Things You Can Do to Prevent Alzheimer’s and Age-Related Memory Loss, continuing education, vigorous mental activity, and stimulating language give the brain what Dr. David Bennett of Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center describes as “cognitive reserve.” Carper adds that Gary Small of UCLA advocates browsing the Internet for 1 hour a day to “stimulate your aging brain even more than reading a book.”
Inspire your brain with pursuits you naturally enjoy. Engage in brain-stimulating activities such as cards, games, puzzles, sudoku, and museum visits. Research presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2014 links these types of activities to increased brain volume. According to the study, people who spend time playing mentally stimulating games are apt to perform better in learning, memory, and information processing tests.
For some people, involvement in cognitively stimulating activities could be a useful approach for preserving vulnerable brain structures and cognitive functions, according to researchers from the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute and the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.
Exercise is associated with a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s. Exercise stimulates the growth of new brain cells, according to a study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. It appears that regular physical activity “increases the endurance of cells and tissues to oxidative stress, vascularization, energy metabolism, and neurotrophin synthesis, all important in neurogenesis, memory improvement, and brain plasticity.” Researchers concluded: “physical exercise is beneficial in the prevention of AD and other age-associated neurodegenerative disorders.”
3. Meditate Regularly
A study at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston found that an aging brain developing Alzheimer’s can benefit from meditation and stress reduction to combat cognitive deterioration. Rebecca Erwin Wells, who researched stress reduction techniques at Harvard Medical School, explains: “Approximately 50 percent of people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment may develop dementia within five years. As people age, there’s a high correlation between perceived stress and Alzheimer’s disease, so we wanted to know if stress reduction through meditation might improve cognitive reserve.”
Her team engaged people over the age of 55 who were having problems with memory and intellectual abilities in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which consists of meditation and yoga, while the control group underwent normal care. A functional MRI (fMRI) of their brains showed positive changes in brain structures and brain activities of those doing the meditation.
4. Maintain a Healthy Diet
A healthy diet with no or moderate alcohol intake is a commonsense way to minimize a variety of health problems. But did you know that coffee may actually be a preventative Alzheimer’s aid?
A study from Finnish researchers published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease showed that middle-aged adults who drank 3 to 5 cups of coffee per day enjoyed a 65% lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Gary Arendash, PhD, University of South Florida Research Professor at the Florida Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, states that caffeine “reduces dementia-causing amyloid in animal brains.”
Apple juice is another beverage that may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease by accelerating the production of acetylcholine, an organic chemical that functions as a neurotransmitter, sending signals to the brain. According to Thomas B. Shea, PhD, Director, Center for Cellular Neurobiology and Neurodegenerative Research, University of Massachusetts Lowell, of the University of Massachusetts, two or three apples (or 16 ounces of apple juice) may work on the same principle as the Alzheimer’s drug Aricept.
A 2015 study showed that patients with type 2 diabetes had greater protection against dementia when blood sugar levels were kept stable. “The positive association between [average blood sugar levels] and risk of dementia in fairly young patients with type 2 diabetes indicates a potential for prevention of dementia with improved blood sugar control,” study author Dr. Aidin Rawshani, from the National Diabetes Register and Institute of Medicine in Gothenburg, Sweden, and colleagues write. The Mediterranean Diet, made up of healthy fats such as olive oil and fiber-rich whole grains, can help to keep blood sugar levels low.
5. Stop Smoking
Another commonsense way to protect overall health is to avoid smoking. In 2014 the World Health Organization (WHO) and Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI) issued a report saying that smokers have a 45% greater risk of developing dementia than non-smokers do and that 14% of the world’s Alzheimer’s disease cases may be attributed to smoking. The study also said that “the more a person smokes, the higher the risk.”
6. Avoid Head Injury
As previously mentioned, trauma to the head appears to be linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. According to researchers at the Center for Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine, Departments of Pathology, and Preventive Medicine and Biometrics, and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Maryland,“Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is associated with a high risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a type of dementia with distinctive clinical and pathologic features. The recent recognition that CTE is common in retired professional football and hockey players has rekindled interest in this condition, as has the recognition that military personnel also experience high rates of mild TBIs and may have a similar syndrome.”
7. Control Infections
Research links Alzheimer’s to infections such as cold sores, gastric ulcers, Lyme disease, pneumonia, the flu, and gum disease. Dr. Ruth Itzhaki of the University of Manchester in England estimates the cold-sore herpes simplex virus is responsible for 60% of Alzheimer’s cases. Infections stimulate excessive beta amyloid material that destroy brain cells. The findings were reported in the Journal of Pathology.
8. Take Vitamins
Many researchers cite the importance of vitamins for Alzheimer’s prevention. A University of Exeter (England) study determined a “severe deficiency” of vitamin D can raise your risk of brain impairment by as much as 394%. While the vitamin is found in fish, egg yolks, milk, juices, breakfast cereals, and other vitamin D-fortified foods, you can also take supplements to shore up any deficiencies, especially if the sun likes to hide where you live. Sun rays are the best source of vitamin D.
A study in the journal Neurology suggests that low levels of vitamin D can trigger Alzheimer’s in older people, with 53% more likely to develop the disease. Of people severely deficient, the risk jumped by 125%.
Two recent studies demonstrate the positive effects of vitamin E against “mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease and age-related memory problems.” One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that vitamin E slowed the progression of functional decline by 19% every year, which is the equivalent of 6.2 months’ benefit over the placebo. The researchers concluded that vitamin E “can be recommended as standard clinical practice.” Another study published in JAMA confirmed that vitamin E helped delay function decline and decreased caregiver burden.
9. Avoid Cynicism
A Finnish study published in the journal Neurology suggests that highly cynical people have a greater chance of developing dementia. The study queried 1,449 people about their trust levels. After 8 years, people who were determined to be cynical were “three times more likely to develop dementia than those low on that measure.”
10. Get Sleep
A study at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore linked lack of sleep or sleeping poorly with an increase in beta-amyloid, a toxic protein that builds up and forms plaques in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s. In studying 70 older adults, average age 76, who were part of the ongoing Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, the researchers found through brain scans that people who got less than 5 hours of sleep per night or who slept fitfully had higher levels of beta-amyloid in the brain than did those who slept more than 7 hours a night.
We may not see a cure for Alzheimer’s disease in our lifetimes, and it may be difficult to overcome genetic predisposition to the condition. Still, eating healthy and implementing wellness habits can help keep our brain cells—and memories—growing.