7 Ways to Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease
Estimates suggest that by 2050, 13.8 million people over 65 will be living with Alzheimer's (up from an estimated 5.8 million in 2019). And women are twice as likely as men to develop the disease. But there are scientifically sound steps you can take to prevent it. Maybe start today?
Repeat after us: Biology is not destiny
When my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease several years ago, it wasn’t a huge surprise. Both of his parents, even an aunt, had suffered from it, and my dad assumed he was next. No matter how much I urged him to adopt brain-friendly habits, he either didn’t want to change or perhaps, more importantly, he didn’t believe he could do anything to counter his risk. How I wish I could rewind the clock.
Truth is, Alzheimer’s is a largely preventable disease. Only three percent of all Alzheimer’s cases are genetic, which means that your lifestyle habits matter. “Lifestyle habits can affect anywhere from 90 to 97 percent of your risk,” says Ayesha Sherzai, M.D., co-director of the Brain Health and Alzheimer’s Prevention Program at Loma Linda University Health in Loma Linda, CA., and co-author of The Alzheimer’s Solution.
You should also know this about Alzheimer’s: “It’s not a normal part of aging,” Sherzai says. Your brain’s speed of processing does slow as you age, but on the flip side, your vocabulary increases and your judgment and decision-making capacity improve.
Unfortunately, for reasons that aren’t yet known, women are a prime target for the disease, making up two-thirds of all Alzheimer’s cases. That’s why it’s even more important for us to adopt brain-healthy habits and the sooner, the better, as changes in the brain that set you up for Alzheimer’s start early, maybe even in childhood. “People begin having symptoms of Alzheimer’s when the brain has a hard time clearing out toxins and healing itself and basically gives up on itself, which is brought on by decades of unhealthy behaviors,” Sherzai says.
Because there’s no treatment for Alzheimer’s, it’s wise to act like you’re at risk and start living as brain-healthy as possible. Bonus? By taking care of your brain, your whole body will benefit. Here are seven ways to do it:
Adopt an Alzheimer’s Prevention Diet
People who eat a whole food, plant-only diet achieve optimal health, brain health included. “This diet manages vascular conditions that cause brain disease and provides the necessary fuel for the brain to thrive,” Sherzai says. Plants are also loaded with antioxidants, which fight inflammation. If you’re unwilling to move to a plant-only diet, lean into it as closely as you can, focusing on three stands-outs: Leafy greens (at least three servings a day), berries (at least a cup a day), and beans (two to three servings a day).
Find Brain Exercises You Enjoy
Put your brain to work by challenging it with novel activities, whether that means learning to play an instrument or taking language classes. “Cognitive activity, such as learning something new, builds cognitive reserve, or the capacity of the brain to function optimally despite age-related changes, neuronal loss, and/or build-up of pathology (like amyloid plaques),” says Yuko Hara, Ph.D., director of aging and Alzheimer’s prevention at the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation. “Because your brain is more resilient and resistant to these changes, having more cognitive reserve allows you to maintain normal cognitive function longer.”
Lean into Eustress
There really is a difference between good and bad stress, and eliminating bad stress is key. Sherzai defines bad stress as the type that increases stress hormones like cortisol, which eats away at the brain. Good stress (also known as eustress), however, is usually purpose-driven, within your control, and engages and challenges your brain. In the end, it can protect your brain. (Click here to learn more about How to Keep Stress from Making You Sick.)
Manage Chronic Disease
Numerous diseases can increase your risk for Alzheimer’s, especially diabetes. An individual with diabetes has a 73 percent increased risk of all dementias versus people without diabetes, Hara says. And although high blood pressure doesn’t have as great an impact on the brain, somebody who’s 50 with a systolic blood pressure greater than 130 mmHG has a 38 percent increased risk. Because this effect isn’t seen in people in their 60s and 70s, midlife blood pressure control is extremely critical, she adds.
Engage in aerobic exercise regularly
Aerobic exercise is one of the most powerful things you can do for the brain. When you exercise, your body releases a cocktail of hormones and chemicals, including brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF creates connections between brain cells, and studies show you can increase BDNF after just one aerobic workout, Sherzai says. Aim to do brisk walking (or equivalent) at least 30 minutes a day five days a week.
Focus on Leg Strength Training
While doing strength training for the whole body is important for numerous reasons, you want to focus on leg strength more than any other part for brain health. “Bigger leg strength is associated with bigger brains,” Sherzai says. Not only does exercise increase BDNF, those legs are also your body’s most powerful pump. When your leg muscles contract, they push blood back into the body and brain, and that increase in blood flow in the brain helps get rid of toxic byproducts.
Know the Relationship Between Sleep and Alzheimer’s Disease
“During sleep, toxic proteins in the brain get flushed out,” Hara says. It’s also the time when memory is consolidated. Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep, and don’t think more is better, as sleeping more than nine hours has been associated with a higher risk of dementia. To improve your sleep, don’t exercise or drink coffee or alcohol right before bed, maintain a regular sleep schedule, and put away your devices 30 minutes before hitting the hay.