Even though no drug therapy or treatment regimen has yet been found that will definitively prevent Alzheimer’s disease, lifestyle choices can make a big difference in your risk of developing the condition down the line.
Researchers are now discovering, in fact, that certain healthy habits and lifestyle practices appear to reduce your chances of developing Alzheimer’s — and they say it’s never too early to begin making healthy changes.
“We know that alterations in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s can start decades before symptoms appear, so it may be wise to start thinking about prevention as early as your 30s and 40s,” says Zoe Arvanitakis, MD, an Alzheimer’s researcher at Rush University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago and associate professor of neurology at Rush University Medical School.
But what behaviors really make a difference? While there are no guarantees, experts believe that concentrating on the following five areas may give you a leg up on this difficult and debilitating illness.
- Eat Smart
Sticking to a healthy, low-fat diet has been linked to Alzheimer’s prevention. One Harvard study of 13,000 women, age 70 and older, found that those who ate the most vegetables — especially green leafy ones (like spinach and romaine lettuce) and cruciferous ones (like broccoli and cauliflower) — experienced a slower rate of cognitive decline than those who ate the fewest vegetables. Turmeric, a traditional Indian yellow spice used in curry, also shows promise in Alzheimer’s prevention. In animal studies, UCLA researchers discovered that Alzheimer’s-like brain plaques disappeared after treatment with compounds found in this spice. A diet loaded with heart-healthy foods may also help stave off the disease. “High cholesterol increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s since clogged arteries around the heart can lead to damaged blood vessels in the brain,” says Dr. Arvanitakis. Because it is thought that this type of damage may disrupt brain circuits that are important for memory, eating a diet low in saturated fat and trans fats may help keep cholesterol in check and protect against Alzheimer’s.
- Get Moving
Simply getting off the couch and going for a brisk walk may help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. An Australian study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that as little as six months of regular exercise produced improvement in memory and cognitive function in a group of older adults. A separate six-year study of 1,700 seniors 65 and older found that working out three or more times per week slashed the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia by 35 percent.
- Maintain a Healthy Weight
Obesity during midlife appears to raise the risk of developing Alzheimer’s in the later years. A 2008 Kaiser Permanente study of 6,500 men and women found that those who were 30 or more pounds overweight and accumulated lots of belly fat in their 40s were 3.6 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s decades later. Studies also show that diabetes, which is linked to obesity, also increases the risk of Alzheimer’s. “This may be a direct result of high blood sugar or because diabetes is associated with high cholesterol,” says Arvanitakis. But dropping weight during midlife, especially in the belly, can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
- Consider Supplements
Scientists are studying whether certain nutrients acquired in dietary-supplement form can help protect against Alzheimer’s. Folic acid, which is known to reduce levels of the amino acid homocysteine, shows some promise because elevated homocysteine levels can increase the risk of both heart disease and Alzheimer’s. In one European study, a daily dose of 800 mcg of folic acid lowered homocysteine levels and significantly improved memory and cognitive function in a group of middle-aged and senior adults. At one time, high doses of vitamin E were also thought to have a possible protective role against Alzheimer’s disease, but recent studies have found no link between vitamin E supplements and Alzheimer’s development. Some research, however, has suggested that ginkgo biloba, a popular memory-enhancing herb, may be helpful in delaying the development of Alzheimer’s.
- Stay Mentally Active
Exercising your mind is one of the easiest ways to help prevent Alzheimer’s. Researchers at Rush University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center found that seniors who stayed mentally active by reading, doing crossword puzzles, and taking classes were more than twice as likely to stay free from Alzheimer’s disease in comparison to less mentally active people. Other studies have produced similar results. “Using your brain to learn new information, solve problems, and form memories not only helps to maintain existing brain circuits but may also create new ones,” says Arvanitakis. “This could prevent Alzheimer’s disease from ever developing.” So pick up a book or click on an informative Web site today. You may be helping to keep Alzheimer’s at bay!