Alzheimer disease is on the rise in the United States, and the facts are daunting. According to the Alzheimer Association’s 2020 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report, approximately 5.8 million Americans age 65 and older currently have the disease, and nearly two-thirds of those are women. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States—a ranking that’s expected to skyrocket as the US population ages.
According to the report:
Without major medical advancements to put the brakes on the disease, projections show the number of people 65 and older with Alzheimer disease will increase to 7.1 million by 2025—and reach 13.8 million by 2050.
The cost of healthcare for Alzheimer disease and other dementias represents a significant financial burden to American society, with a total estimated cost of $305 billion in 2020—and that does not account for the costs associated with informal caregiving.
Over 16 million Americans care for people with Alzheimer or other dementias, without pay.
And it’s not just an American problem. The WHO estimates there are about 50 million people across the globe living with dementia, with nearly 10 million cases being added each year. According to a review published in Therapeutic Advances in Chronic Disease, this number is projected to increase to 75 million by 2030, and to 135 million by 2050. The cost of dementia on the worldwide healthcare system is currently more than $800 billion and is expected to mushroom to $2 trillion by the year 2030.
Those numbers sound intimidatingly large, but there are measures we can take individually to help combat the problem. According to the authors of the aforementioned review, almost half of all dementia cases can be attributed to a small number of modifiable lifestyle risk factors, including smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
Here are four simple ways that you can improve your brain health and protect yourself against the development of Alzheimer disease.
Feed your brain
The road to good brain health begins in the kitchen. While everyone knows that what we eat has an impact on our bodies, research shows that it can also have major implications for our brains.
Plenty of research has been conducted on the various health benefits that a Mediterranean diet can offer—and this includes dementia prevention. In looking at 18 different studies, the aforementioned review showed that this style of diet, based on fruits, vegetables, and fish, can delay cognitive decline with regard to memory and function. A research paper published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry evaluated several studies focusing on a Mediterranean diet and found it had beneficial impacts on various neuropsychological functions, including improvements in language skills, processing speed, and memory tasks.
But if you don’t want to overhaul your entire diet, some of these studies focused on individual elements of this type of diet, like olive oil. For example, one study in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging analyzed the impacts of eating a Mediterranean diet supplemented with additional olive oil over 6 and a half years. It found that those who consumed more olive oil had significantly better performance in fluency and memory tasks.
You also don’t necessarily need to focus on the Mediterranean component. There are various nutrients that may help fight against Alzheimer disease and preserve brain health. The authors of the review in Therapeutic Advances in Chronic Disease identified green tea as a possible intervention for cognitive improvement, due to an amino acid called l-theanine. Another study suggested that the polyphenol compounds in Concord grape juice, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and influence neuronal signaling, may enhance cognitive function for older adults with early memory decline.
While some of these lines of inquiry require further research, there are several well-established risk factors for dementia that can be tempered with a generally healthier diet. Research suggests that patients with diabetes have a three-fold higher risk for developing dementia, particularly women. Likewise, vascular disease has been shown to be associated with the development of dementia syndromes.
As such, diets that improve heart health and combat diabetes—high in foods like nuts, vegetables, fiber-rich foods, and less fatty meats like chicken—may be important in preventing Alzheimer disease.
As with a healthy diet, working out regularly can offer numerous health benefits—including keeping the mind limber. Various long-term studies, including one published in the European Journal of Epidemiology, have established a link between physical activity and better brain health.
Research suggests that exercise enhances neurotrophin production and signaling, and improves blood flow to the brain. Studies also show that exercise can temper inflammatory processes and offer various other benefits.
One study conducted over the course of 8 years found that, among a group of participants over 70 years old, those who were physically active during their down time had better cognitive function and a slower rate of cognitive decline. The researchers found that the duration of physical activity was the best indicator of cognitive improvement, with participants who exercised for 30 minutes or more on a regular basis having the lowest risks of cognitive decline.
If you’re not a particularly active person, taking on a new exercise regimen can seem intimidating. But if you stick to it, you may feel the differences more quickly than you think. In an investigation published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers looked at 126 participants over 12 weeks and concluded that 3 months of physical and mental activity was associated with significant improvements in cognitive function.
The review in Therapeutic Advances in Chronic Disease concluded that exercise may even be more effective in slowing down cognitive decline than a cognitive training program. So grab your running shoes and get moving to protect your brain!
Of course, working out can be a real chore for some people. If you’re one of those people, meditation or yoga may be more your cup of tea—and as it turns out, these practices may do wonders for your brain.
Psychosocial stressors are associated with lower levels of brain performance and an accelerated rate of cognitive decline, wrote the review authors, suggesting that lowering stress levels with meditation may be an effective intervention for improving cognitive function.
A study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease explored changes to memory performance and cerebral blood flow in participants after just 8 weeks of practicing meditation. The researchers found that the 2-month meditation program resulted in significant increases in blood flow, as well as improvements in verbal fluency and memory. Overall, the study suggests that meditation can help combat mental decline.
Various studies provide evidence to support this notion. The authors of a systematic review in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, wrote: “On the basis of a growing body of research that shows that meditation has positive effects on cognition in younger and middle-aged adults, meditation may be able to offset normal age-related cognitive decline or even enhance cognitive function in older adults.”
The practice of long-term meditation may even slow the age-related decline of a number of cognitive functions, according to researchers.
So, find a peaceful spot, empty your mind, and leave the world behind for 20-30 minutes. Research suggests it has a positive impact on the parts of your brain most related to cognitive impairment and Alzheimer disease.
Finally, if even meditation feels like a little too much work, there’s an easier way to help combat dementia: Sleep more. According to a number of recent studies, getting regular “deep sleep” can help protect against Alzheimer disease.
“There is something about this deep sleep that is helping protect you,” said Matthew Walker, PhD, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, in a recent interview on NPR. For decades, researchers have observed the link between poor sleep and long-term problems with memory and thinking. “We are now learning that there is a significant relationship between sleep and dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease,” he said.
Deep sleep refers to a period that takes place typically toward the end of a normal night’s sleep, during which your body temperature drops and your brain starts to slowly produce electrical pulses. This may also be a period during which you dispose of the brain’s waste products that increase the risk of developing dementia.
Researchers believe that deep sleep can help reduce levels of two indicators of Alzheimer disease: beta-amyloid and tau. In a new study, Dr. Walker and a team of scientists studied the sleep of a group of 32 people in their 70s over the course of 6 years. The team looked at how much deep sleep each participant was getting and used brain scans to monitor their levels of beta-amyloid. They found that those who slept less had more of it.
Another study found an association between sleep deprivation and higher levels of tau, which also leads to Alzheimer disease. The conclusion from both studies was simple: Getting less than a full night’s sleep appears to increase your risks of developing dementia.