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How to Reduce Your Risk of Alzheimer's and Dementia
Whether you know someone who has the disease or you just want to research for your own benefit, it’s important to learn more about Alzheimer's. It is perhaps the third leading cause of death for older Americans (with other estimates putting it at sixth). And it’s not just a condition that affects daily life, because it can actually lead to an early death.
Can Alzheimer’s be prevented? Researchers continue to study the risk factors that correlate with the disease. While there is much we don’t know about Alzheimer’s, experts have found that some healthy activities may be linked to lower rates of occurrence.
Here is what we do know.
What is Alzheimer’s?
The NIH defines Alzheimer’s disease as “an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills.” They go on to share that eventually, it becomes impossible for someone with Alzheimer’s to continue carrying out simple, everyday tasks.
The disease is primarily associated with adults aged 65 and older. And while there is no official number, it’s estimated that more than 6 million Americans have Alzheimer's. It’s also the most common cause of dementia.
How Alzheimer’s changes the brain
A brain with Alzheimer’s may start changing long before anyone notices the most common symptoms. As proteins build up and form “amyloid plaques” and “tau tangles,” healthy neurons stop working as they should and no longer communicate with other neurons. These neurons eventually die, and the brain changes in complex ways.
Early stages would have a sufferer forgetting things like paying bills or experiencing changes in personality, and this is when the disease is usually diagnosed. As Alzheimer’s progresses, the conditions worsen and include moderate stages of confusion or even hallucination. In the final stage, the sufferer completely loses their independence and ability to communicate.
Tips for Alzheimer’s disease prevention
Alzheimer’s prevention is a hot topic among health professionals, especially those who work in geriatric or the aging brain medical fields. Since a cure isn't on the horizon just yet, the focus is mostly on prevention. While there are so many studies that show promise in a range of areas, not many are conclusive. In fact, the NIH states that there is no conclusive way to prevent the disease.
However, there are ways to lower your risk, some of which you may be doing already. Let’s take a look at how you can potentially reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s.
1. Control high blood pressure
If you don’t already have high blood pressure (BP), you can likely keep doing the things you enjoy. If you do have BP issues, discuss the best ways to lower yours with your physician. This may include mediation, but can also include keeping a healthy weight, exercising, and eating a healthy diet (more on that below).
If you consume too much sodium in your diet, consider cutting back. As you age, it’s harder for your body to process this ingredient. Reducing stress can alleviate some blood pressure problems, too.
2. Maintain a healthy weight
While a healthy weight will depend on your unique body type, age, and personal health profile, your physician should have a number you can work toward. There are many fad diets out there promising to help you slim down, but following the rule of eating no more calories than you burn is a good start.
Smaller portions of food, a reduction in junk food, and the addition of fibrous fruits and vegetables can make it easier to maintain a healthy weight. You can add exercise to your daily routine, too. Just be sure you don't do anything drastic without checking in with your physician first.
3. Get active
Don't start a rigorous exercise program without seeking help first. But if you've gotten the "OK," there are many benefits to movement, including a lower risk of dementia. You can mix things up with exercises for cardiovascular health, flexibility, balance, and strength. Good activities include yoga, Tai Chi, dancing, water aerobics, and walking. If it helps motivate you, seek out a class or workout partner for accountability and safety.
4. Stay mentally engaged
Can doing crossword puzzles or brain games really keep you safe from Alzheimer’s? Researchers may have found a connection, but there are no definitive claims. However, the researchers did find that “the more often someone engaged in mentally stimulating activities, the less buildup of beta-amyloid they were likely to have in the brain.” High cognitive engagement, therefore, may slow or stop this substance that often accompanies the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s.
5. Sleep well
Getting enough rest is better for cognitive function, even without the risk of dementia, and it can help you keep your immune system strong, too. If you struggle to sleep, try to remove electronics and distractions from your bedroom, keep your room at the right temperature, and avoid alcohol or caffeine in the hours before bedtime. If you are a worrier at night, talk to your doctor about things you can do to take the pressure off.
Foods that help to prevent Alzheimer’s
Can what you eat really keep you from getting dementia? Again, there's no cure or certain prevention for Alzheimer's, but what you eat does matter. From reducing blood pressure to maintaining a healthy weight, there are many linked risk factors that you may reduce by eating well.
Some research has shown a possible connection with a diet like the Mediterranean diet or the MIND diet. The MIND diet combines the Mediterranean diet with the lower sodium DASH diet aimed to lower blood pressure. Research suggests eating foods from these groups may reduce dementia risk:
- Six servings of leafy greens per week; one additional serving of vegetables per day
- Two servings of berries per week
- Three servings of whole grains per day
- One serving of fish per week
- Two servings of poultry per week
- Three servings of beans per week
- Five servings of nuts per week
- Olive oil
If it’s OK with your physician, you may also incorporate one glass of wine each day. Red meat, cheese, butter, sweets, and fast foods are discouraged on the MIND diet plan.
As stated, eating this way doesn't guarantee the prevention of dementia or Alzheimer's. Lower case numbers have been observed in groups who have practiced the Mediterranean diet compared to those who ate a traditional Western-style diet with saturated fats, sugars, and red meat. If in doubt, simply limiting these food types may create a positive outcome.
What about individual foods or vitamins?
Again, the research is inconclusive, so it is not recommended that you load up on certain foods, like spinach and blueberries, simply for their rumored cognitive benefits. They are healthy options, however, so consider eating them as part of the diet mentioned above.
Supplements such as vitamins B and E, "brain health" supplement mixtures, and ginkgo Biloba may appear in advertisements for dementia prevention products. These have not been supported by widely-accepted studies and are not backed by the FDA. Take any supplements with caution and only under the advice of your physician.
Bottom line: How to prevent Alzheimer’s disease
Whether this disease runs in your family or you simply worry about what your life may be like as an older adult, it's perfectly normal to want to know everything you can about how to prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia. The good news is that there are ways to reduce your risk, and they’re actually linked with a healthier lifestyle in general. And with more research happening every day, we can all hope for a cure for Alzheimer’s in the future.