Can Alzheimer’s disease be prevented?

By Rosemary Black, for MDLinx
Published July 1, 2019

Key Takeaways

It’s the end of the day and you’re about to leave the office when you remember you have one more patient chart to fill. But was the patient complaining of abdominal pain on the left or right side? Also, where did that patient’s chart go? Forgetting details or misplacing items can oftentimes be attributed to stress or normal aging—but these habits can also be indicative of more serious cognitive problems as we get older, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Fortunately, there may be some things you can do proactively to prevent Alzheimer’s in the future.

“It is now known that brain changes typically begin years—if not decades—before people show symptoms, which suggests that a window of opportunity exists to prevent, slow, or delay the onset of these conditions,” note the authors of a report issued by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. “Further, emerging evidence that the incidence and prevalence of dementia are declining in some high-income countries offers hope that public health interventions can be effective in preventing cognitive decline and dementia. Although the evidence base on how to prevent, slow, or delay these conditions has been limited at best—despite the many claims of success made in popular media and advertising—a growing body of prevention research is emerging.”

Below are some easy changes you can make that may help to forestall cognitive decline.

Get moving!

“Aerobic exercise for 45 minutes three times a week or more helps to keep the brain healthy and actually is associated with the growth of new neurons in the brain regions that are important for memory,” explained Gayatri Devi, MD, a neurologist at Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City, NY, who specializes in memory disorder, and author of  The Spectrum of Hope: An Optimistic and New Approach to Alzheimer's Disease and other Dementias.

Regular cardiovascular exercise that elevates your heart rate and increases blood flow to the brain and body is what you should be doing, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, and some researchers have found an association between exercise and reduced risk of cognitive decline.

In a study published in Translational Psychiatry, researchers looked at the effect of physical activity in older people, noting: “There is mounting evidence that aerobic exercise has a positive effect on cognitive functions in older adults…It has been suggested that aerobic exercise renders the brain more efficient, plastic and adaptive, which leads to improved memory and executive function.”

Get enough zzz’s

“Practice good sleep hygiene and sleep enough to feel rested every day,” advised Dr. Devi. If you have a condition like sleep apnea or insomnia, you may not be getting enough sleep, and this can lead to problems with thinking and memory, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

There is no set rule for how much sleep you should be getting, but 7-9 hours per night is excellent, noted Julie Jernberg, MD, director, ambulatory medicine block; director, Integrative Medicine in Residency Tucson Internal Medicine Site; and assistant professor of medicine,  Geriatrics, General Internal Medicine, and Palliative Medicine, Banner-University Tucson, Tucson, AZ. “The ideal would be to get up with the sun and go to bed when it’s dark, but that’s not always possible,” she said.

Be sociable

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, being socially engaged may support brain health. This doesn’t mean you have to spend hours on the phone—instead, try pursuing social activities that you find meaningful, such as volunteering at a local animal shelter if you like animals. If you read a lot, join (or start!) a book club.

Adjust your eating habits

Researchers have shown that several dietary plans, including the Mediterranean Diet (MedDiet)—which recommends eating fruits, vegetables, olive oil, fatty fish, and nuts—and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet may help to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Adhering to the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet also has been linked to slower cognitive decline. In one prospective study in which researchers evaluated these three diets in a cohort of 923 older adults (aged 58-98 years) over a mean of 4.5 years, Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center researchers concluded that:  “High adherence to all three diets may reduce [Alzheimer’s disease] risk. Moderate adherence to the MIND diet may also decrease [Alzheimer’s disease] risk.”

They added: “Results of the study suggest that even modest adjustments to the diet may help to reduce one’s risk of developing [Alzheimer’s disease]. For example, the MIND diet score specifies just two vegetable servings per day, two berry servings per week, and one fish meal per week. These serving recommendations are much lower than three to four daily servings each for fruits and vegetables specified for a maximum score in the DASH and MedDiet indices and six or more fish meals per week in the MedDiet diet score.”

Use your brain in a new way

Keep your brain challenged by doing something you don’t normally do, like a jigsaw puzzle, or building a piece of furniture. Or play a game such as bridge, which makes you think strategically, says the Alzheimer’s Association.

“Cognitive and social interventions have received much attention by the AD [Alzheimer’s disease] prevention community,” note the authors of a review published in Current Alzheimer Research. “As part of the 21-year Bronx Aging Study, leisure activities that included reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments, and dancing were associated with a reduced risk of dementia.”

Don’t smoke!

Smoking increases the risk of cognitive decline, and quitting smoking can reduce your risk of dementia to levels that are comparable to those of a non-smoker, notes the Alzheimer’s Association.

Take care of your heart

Monitor your blood pressure and your cholesterol levels, and strive to keep both in their normal ranges. “It’s important to keep your heart healthy because good heart health is crucial for good brain health,” Dr. Devi said.

Adopting healthy lifestyle habits can make a difference in the overall quality of your life—and it is never too early or late to start! Combining some or all of these simple but effective changes can help you to get the greatest benefits and results for your mind and body.

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