There is no sure shot way to prevent yourself from getting Alzheimer’s, but there are certainly some lifestyle changes that lower your chances of developing Alzheimer’s.
More than 900,000 Americans are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s dementia every year. Only 5 percent of these cases are an outcome of a genetic form of early-onset-Alzheimer’s, which is of course not preventable. For the remaining 95 percent of cases, it may be possible to reduce the risk of developing the disease.
Can you prevent yourself from getting Alzheimer’s?
A number of treatable health conditions including high blood pressure, midlife obesity, depression & hearing loss are all linked to higher rates of developing Alzheimer’s. A person’s lifestyle, from exposure to air pollution, to low educational attainment, to smoking, are also known as risk factors for developing the disease. And healthy lifestyle choices, like eating a healthy diet, keeping a healthy mind, getting exercise, taking the right medications, & staying both physically & mentally active are all associated with lower risk.
Working on removing or decreasing these risk factors can prevent up to one in three cases of the disease.
Diet and Alzheimer’s
The link between Alzheimer’s disease and nutrition is complicated. Observational studies which observe diet over time suggest that it is a very important factor.
A diet which is rich in processed foods that are high in added sugar & fat is associated with brain shrinkage, faster rate of cognitive decline & developing Alzheimer’s. On the other hand, a diet which is rich in leafy greens, legumes, fish oils, whole grains & nuts, may reduce the risk of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s while also promoting heart health.
The MIND diet combines a Mediterranean diet with the DASH diet which was designed to improve heart health.
“The MIND diet has a pretty dramatic effect,” says the late Martha Clare Morris, who was one of the creators of the MIND diet “We found that people who scored in the top third for closely following the MIND diet had very little changes in their cognitive abilities with time.”
The people who stick to a MIND diet were found to be about seven & half years younger in brain age compared to people who did not follow the MIND diet.
“We found that people in the highest third of scores had a 53 percent reduction in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s,” Morris said. “People who were in the intermediate range for sticking to the diet also had a good 35 percent reduction.”
The data on whether a certain diet truly helps to prevent Alzheimer’s is inconclusive. But study on MIND diet did prove that people who follow the MIND diet had a significantly younger brain age than people who didn’t.
Will adopting a MIND diet lower my risk of developing Alzheimer’s?
A MIND diet is associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s across many studies. It improves physical and cardiovascular health. While the evidence for this diet pattern is strong, the cause and effect of this relationship is still not clear. Scientists aren’t 100 percent sure yet, more data will help to shed more light.
“Many trials have not proved that making people eat healthy … is translating into benefits in the way it is expected from the epidemiological research,” said Dr. Hussein Yassine, associate professor of medicine & neurology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “That means either there is no causal connection, or that these studies have not been properly designed.”
Race & socioeconomic factors are also associated with Alzheimer’s and diet. Black & Hispanic Americans as well as people who have low income are less likely to eat healthy & more likely develop other cardiovascular conditions & Alzheimer’s.
Do ketogenic diets reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s?
There is not enough evidence to prove that the ketogenic (keto) diet wards off this disease. The keto diet is supposed to work by helping the brain use fat as fuel instead of glucose making it more efficient.
A ketogenic diet might provide your body with a needed alternate source of energy. But doing this could deprive the body & brain of many other essential nutrients that play a role in your overall vascular health.
During the ketogenic diet, the body uses ketone bodies for energy. The ketones lower blood pH leading to other health consequences. In addition to messing with the body’s acid-base balance, carbohydrates are either totally cut off or are down to a minimum, & this leads to removal of many healthful foods like fruits & healthy grains.
However, the ketones themselves can be beneficial. Scientists are studying whether ketones could prove protective.
Can intermittent fasting reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s?
Intermittent fasting could promote longevity & healthy metabolism within the brain. In this fasting pattern, a person will eat during an eight or six hour window throughout the day & will fast the rest of the time. During the fast period, the brain enters a low-energy protective state. This state is called autophagy which means “self-eating”. In autophagy, the cells begin to recycle existing materials & clear waste.
While this approach gave good results in animal models, the evidence in humans is still lacking. “Fasting is not necessarily a good thing,” said USC biogerontologist Dr. Valter Longo, founder of the Prolon fasting-mimicking diet. “We need to find the type of interventions & the type of fasting that can work.”
Dr. Longo is currently running a study of 60 patients at the University of Genoa to see whether a particular fasting-mimicking diet intervention could improve brain health.
Exercise may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s
Exercise even in small amounts has a tendency to boost brain health. Exercise doesn’t necessarily have to be intensive or for longer time duration. Aerobic exercise like running has the potential to lower the risk of developing dementia.
Even low-intensity exercise can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. This is great news for people who are always over occupied with work, & don’t get opportunity or mobility to do intensive exercise. A study published in JAMA Neurology found that simply walking 4,000 steps everyday can reduce the risk of developing dementia by 25 percent.
Another method to include exercise in a tight schedule is to take short breaks during the day. These small bursts of physical activity can also reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
Exercise works well even for people who are genetically prone to develop this disease.
Exercise promotes cardiovascular health. This helps keep the brain’s blood vessels healthy, ensuring a steady flow of oxygen & energy. Exercise also stimulates the brain’s immune system & leads to release of hormones & signaling molecules in blood that may ward off Alzheimer’s.
Research found benefits when individuals exercised at least three times a week. All forms of exercise are beneficial but there appears to be a greater benefit with high intensity exercise.
Treating cardiovascular conditions
High blood pressure, cholesterol, & diabetes are all associated with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
Treating these conditions needs a mix of exercise, diet, and medications. The medicines used to treat these conditions are linked to a reduction in Alzheimer’s risk.
Blood pressure-lowering medications are prescribed when blood pressure crosses 130/80 mm Hg. Blood pressure medications that cross into brain could reduce the probability of developing dementia by 19 percent.
Statins are another class of drugs that promote cardiovascular health by lowering the levels of bad cholesterol. Getting cholesterol under control with statins is linked in some, but not all, clinical trials to a reduction in developing Alzheimer’s.
Epidemiological studies showed that people taking statins were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as statins are linked to many cardiovascular benefits.
There is also some evidence that diabetes treatments could help keep the aging brain healthy. When these drugs help keep blood glucose under control, this helps the brain maintain healthy metabolism for longer. Scientists are now working to know whether these drugs could keep off cognitive decline in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
Keeping the brain active protects against cognitive decline
Low education, hearing loss, social isolation & depression are major risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s as they impact brain health and function. Keeping the brain active and healthy can help reduce these risks.
Increasing mental activity simply by reading or doing puzzles could reduce the risk of developing dementia. Even simple games which aren’t designed to improve brain health still can provide a protective boost. Musicians & people who speak more than one language or people who in any form keep their brain active are also less likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
Older people with hearing loss could reduce their risk of developing Alzheimer’s through the use of hearing aids. Improving hearing ability makes it easier to participate in group settings and other activities, such as playing music. All of these activities promote problem solving and memory, which stimulates the process of neuroplasticity. This helps the brain strengthen existing connections & build new connections.
Depression and other psychiatric conditions during mid-life can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia. Depression can also accelerate aging process in brain, leading to earlier onset of dementia. There is also an overlap between depression & Alzheimer’s, three out of five people diagnosed with depression will experience some form of cognitive impairment.
Fortunately, treating depression is possible through a combination of lifestyle changes, psychotherapy, and antidepressant medications which can lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s as well.
The most successful approaches for reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s encompass a healthy diet, exercise, managing cardiovascular health, and staying mentally active.