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Alzheimer's and Dementia Prevention

How to Reduce Your Risk and Protect Your Brain as You Age

Improving Emotional Health In This Article

Can Alzheimer’s disease be prevented? While you may have been told that all you can do is hope for the best and wait for a pharmaceutical cure, the truth is much more encouraging. Promising research shows that you can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias through a combination of healthy habits, including eating right, exercising, staying mentally and socially active, and keeping stress in check. By leading a brain-healthy lifestyle, you may be able to prevent the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and slow down, or even reverse, the process of deterioration.

Lifestyle choices can protect your brain

Researchers across the world are racing towards a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. But as prevalence rates climb, their focus has broadened from treatment to prevention strategies. What they’ve discovered is that it may be possible to prevent or delay the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias through a combination of healthy habits.

Fears about Alzheimer’s may discourage you from taking action. But by identifying and controlling your personal risk factors, you can maximize your chances of lifelong brain health and take effective steps to preserve your cognitive abilities.

The 6 pillars of Alzheimer's prevention

Alzheimer’s is a complex disease with multiple risk factors. Some, like your age and genetics, are outside your control. But many others are within your sphere of influence. And these factors can be quite powerful when it comes to your brain health.

6 Pillars of Brain Health

The six pillars of a brain-healthy, Alzheimer’s prevention lifestyle are:

  1. Regular exercise
  2. Healthy diet
  3. Mental stimulation
  4. Quality sleep
  5. Stress management
  6. An active social life

The more you strengthen each of the six pillars in your daily life, the healthier and hardier your brain will be. When you lead a brain-healthy lifestyle, your brain will stay working stronger… longer.

Alzheimer’s & dementia prevention pillar #1: Regular exercise

According to the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation, regular physical exercise can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by up to 50 percent. What’s more, exercise can also slow further deterioration in those who have already started to develop cognitive problems. Research suggests that exercise protects against Alzheimer’s by stimulating the brain’s ability to maintain old connections as well as make new ones.

To maximize the brain-protecting benefits of your workout:

  • Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week. The ideal plan involves a combination of cardio exercise and strength training, but anything that gets your heart rate up is a good place to start. Good activities for beginners include walking and swimming. But even routine activities such as cleaning and gardening can count as exercise as long as they get you up and moving.
  • Build muscle to pump up your brain. Moderate levels of weight and resistance training not only increase muscle mass, they help you maintain brain health. Combining aerobics and strength training is better than either activity alone. For those over 65, adding 2-3 strength sessions to your weekly routine may cut your risk of Alzheimer’s in half.
  • Include balance and coordination exercises. Head injuries from falls are an increasing risk as you grow older, which in turn increase your risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Balance and coordination exercises can help you stay agile and avoid spills. Try yoga, Tai Chi, or exercises using balance discs or balance balls.

Tips for starting and sticking with your exercise plan

If you’ve been inactive for a while, starting an exercise program can be intimidating. But you don’t have to take up jogging or sign up for a gym membership. Look for small ways to add more movement into your day. Park at the far end of the parking lot, take the stairs, carry your own groceries, or walk around the block or pace while talking on your cell phone.

And remember, it takes approximately 28 days for a new routine to become habit, so do your best to stick with it for a month. Once you’re over this hump, keeping up your exercise routine will feel natural. In the meantime, write realistic goals on a workout calendar and post it on the fridge. Build in frequent rewards, and within no time, the feel-good endorphins from regular exercise will help you forget the remote…and head out the door.

Protect your head

Studies suggest that head trauma at any point in life significantly increases your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. This includes repeated hits in sports activities such as football, soccer, and boxing, or one-time injuries from a bicycle, skating, or motorcycle accident. Protect your brain by wearing properly fitting sports helmets, buckling your seatbelt, and trip-proofing your environment. Avoid activities that compete for your attention—like talking on your cell while driving. A moment’s distraction can lead to a brain-injuring thud!

Alzheimer’s & dementia prevention pillar #2: Healthy diet

In Alzheimer’s disease, inflammation and insulin resistance injure neurons and inhibit communication between brain cells. Alzheimer’s is sometimes described as “diabetes of the brain,” and a growing body of information suggests a strong link between metabolic disorders and the signal processing systems. Eating habits that reduce inflammation and promote normal energy production are brain-healthy. These food tips will keep you protected:

  • Enjoy a Mediterranean diet. Several epidemiological studies show that eating a Mediterranean diet dramatically reduces the risk of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. That means plenty of vegetables, beans, whole grains, fish, and olive oil—and limited dairy and meat.
  • Eat to protect glial cells. Researchers believe that glial cells may help remove debris and toxins from the brain that can contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. Consuming foods such as ginger, green tea, fatty fish, soy products, blueberries, and other dark berries may protect these important cells from damage.
  • Avoid trans fats and saturated fats. These fats can cause inflammation and produce free radicals—both of which are hard on the brain. Reduce your consumption by avoiding full-fat dairy products, red meat, fast food, fried foods, and packaged and processed foods. Watch out for trans fats on labels, where they are listed as “partially hydrogenated oils.” To reduce Alzheimer’s risk, focus on healthy fats.
  • Get plenty of omega-3 fats. Evidence suggests that the DHA found in omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia by reducing beta-amyloid plaques. Food sources include cold-water fish such as salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, and sardines. You can also supplement with fish oil.
  • Stock up on fruit and vegetables. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, the more the better. Eat up across the color spectrum to maximize protective antioxidants and vitamins. Superfoods to emphasize include green leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, and berries.
  • Maintain consistent levels of insulin and blood sugar. Eat several small meals throughout the day. Avoid packaged, refined, and processed foods, especially those high in refined carbs such as sugars and white flour, which rapidly spike glucose levels and inflame your brain.
  • Enjoy daily cups of tea. Regular consumption of green tea may enhance memory and mental alertness and slow brain aging. White and oolong teas are also particularly brain healthy. Drinking 2-4 cups daily has proven benefits. Although not as powerful as tea, coffee also confers brain benefits.

What about supplements?

Folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin D, magnesium, and fish oil are believed to preserve and improve brain health. Studies of vitamin E, ginkgo biloba, coenzyme Q10, and turmeric have yielded less conclusive results, but may also be beneficial in the prevention or delay of Alzheimer’s and dementia symptoms.

Talk to your doctor about medication interactions, and review current literature to make a personal decision about the costs and benefits of dietary supplements.

Alzheimer’s & dementia prevention pillar #3: Mental stimulation

Those who continue learning new things throughout life and challenging their brains are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, so make it a point to stay mentally active. In essence, you need to “use it or lose it.”

Activities involving multiple tasks or requiring communication, interaction, and organization offer the greatest protection. Set aside time each day to stimulate your brain. Cross-training with these brain-boosting activities will help keep you mentally sharp:

  • Learn something new. Study a foreign language, learn sign language, practice a musical instrument, read the newspaper or a good book, or take up a new hobby. The greater the novelty and challenge, the larger the deposit in your brain reserves.
  • Practice memorization. Start with something short, progressing to something a little more involved, such as the 50 U.S. state capitals. Create rhymes and patterns to strengthen your memory connections.
  • Enjoy strategy games, puzzles, and riddles. Brain teasers and strategy games provide a great mental workout and build your capacity to form and retain cognitive associations. Do a crossword puzzle, play board games or cards, or work word and number games, such as Scrabble or Sudoku.
  • Practice the 5 W’s. Observe and report like a crime detective. Keep a “Who, What, Where, When, and Why” list of your daily experiences. Capturing visual details keeps your neurons firing.
  • Follow the road less traveled. Take a new route, eat with your non-dominant hand, rearrange your computer file system. Vary your habits regularly to create new brain pathways.

Mental exercises have long-lasting benefits for seniors

In a groundbreaking study, older adults who received as few as 10 sessions of mental training not only improved their cognitive functioning in daily activities in the months after the training, but continued to show long-lasting improvements 10 years later.

The ACTIVE study of 2,832 seniors involved 60-75 minute training sessions in memory, reasoning, or speed of processing, using exercises such as memorizing lists, detecting patterns in number series, and operating a touch-screen program.

Ten years after the training, nearly three-quarters of the participants who received reasoning training and over 70 percent of speed-trained participants were still performing tasks above their pre-trial baseline level, compared to about 62 and 49 percent of control participants.

While there was not the same improvement in memory performance, the results highlight the importance of mental training in delaying the onset of functional symptoms of dementia.

Source: National Institutes of Health

Alzheimer’s & dementia prevention pillar #4: Quality sleep

It’s common for people with Alzheimer’s disease to suffer from insomnia and other sleep problems. But new research suggests that disrupted sleep isn’t just a symptom of Alzheimer’s, but a possible risk factor. An increasing number of studies have linked poor sleep to higher levels of beta-amyloid, a sticky brain-clogging protein that in turn further interferes with sleep—especially with the deep sleep necessary for memory formation. Other studies emphasize the importance of uninterrupted sleep for flushing out brain toxins.

If nightly sleep deprivation is slowing your thinking and affecting your mood, you may be at greater risk of developing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The vast majority of adults need at least 8 hours of sleep per night. Any less, and productivity and creativity suffers.

Tips to improve the quality of your sleep

  • Get screened for sleep apnea. If you’ve received complaints about your snoring, you may want to get tested for sleep apnea, a potentially dangerous condition where breathing is disrupted during sleep. Treatment can make a huge difference in both your health and sleep quality.
  • Establish a regular sleep schedule. Going to bed and getting up at the same time reinforces your natural circadian rhythms. Your brain’s clock responds to regularity.
  • Be smart about napping. While taking a nap can be a great way to recharge, especially for older adults, it can make insomnia worse. If insomnia is a problem for you, consider eliminating napping. If you must nap, do it in the early afternoon, and limit it to thirty minutes.
  • Set the mood. Reserve your bed for sleep and sex, and ban television and computers from the bedroom (both are stimulating and may lead to difficulties falling asleep).
  • Create a relaxing bedtime ritual. Take a hot bath, do some light stretches, write in your journal, or dim the lights. As it becomes habit, your nightly ritual will send a powerful signal to your brain that it’s time for deep restorative sleep.
  • Quiet your inner chatter. When stress, anxiety, or negative internal dialogues keep you awake, get out of bed. Try reading or relaxing in another room for twenty minutes then hop back in.

Alzheimer’s & dementia prevention pillar #5: Stress management

Stress that is chronic or severe takes a heavy toll on the brain, leading to shrinkage in a key memory area of the brain known as the hippocampus, hampering nerve cell growth, and increasing your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Yet simple daily tools can minimize its harmful effects.

Get your stress levels in check with these proven techniques

  • Breathe! Stress alters your breathing rate and impacts oxygen levels in the brain. Quiet your stress response with deep, abdominal breathing. Restorative breathing is powerful, simple, and free!
  • Schedule daily relaxation activities. Keeping stress under control requires regular effort. Make relaxation a priority, whether it’s a walk in the park, playtime with your dog, yoga, or a soothing bath.
  • Nourish inner peace. Most scientists acknowledge a strong mind-body connection, and various studies associate spirituality with better brain health. Regular meditation, prayer, reflection, and religious practice may immunize you against the damaging effects of stress.
  • Make fun a priority. All work and no play is not goof for your stress levels or your brain. Make time for leisure activities that bring you joy, whether it be stargazing, playing the piano, or working on your bike.
  • Keep your sense of humor. This includes the ability to laugh at yourself. The act of laughing helps your body fight stress in a number of ways.

Alzheimer’s & dementia prevention pillar #6: Social engagement

Human beings are highly social creatures. We don’t thrive in isolation, and neither do our brains. Studies show that the more connected we are, the better we fare on tests of memory and cognition. Research shows that staying socially engaged may even protect against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in later life, so make developing and maintaining a strong network of friends a priority. Keep in mind that you don’t need to be a social butterfly to get brain benefits. When it comes to socializing, think quality, not quantity. In-person, face-to-face interaction is always best.

Oftentimes, we become more isolated as we get older, but there are many ways to keep your support system strong and develop new friendships:

  • Volunteer
  • Join a club or social group
  • Visit your local community center or senior center
  • Take group classes (such as at the gym or a community college)
  • Reach out over the phone or email
  • Connect to others via social networks such as Facebook
  • Get to know your neighbors
  • Make a weekly date with friends
  • Get out (go to the movies, the park, museums, and other public places)

Simple ways to connect with your partner, family member, or friend

  • Commit to spending quality time together on a regular basis. Even during very busy and stressful times, a few minutes of really sharing and connecting can help keep bonds strong.
  • Find something that you enjoy doing together, whether it is a shared hobby, dance class, daily walk, or sitting over a cup of coffee in the morning.
  • Try something new together. Doing new things together can be a fun way to connect and keep things interesting. It can be as simple as trying a new restaurant or going on a day trip to a place you’ve never been before.

Alzheimer’s prevention bonus tip: Watch out for health hazards!

There’s less of a separation between brain and body than you might think. As demonstrated above, what’s good for the body—like sleep, exercise, and nutritious food—is also good for the brain. And that also means that the converse is true: things that are bad for the body are also damaging to the brain.

  • Stop smoking. Smoking is one of the most preventable risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. A significant meta-study found that smokers over the age of 65 have a nearly 80% higher risk of Alzheimer’s than those who have never smoked. When you stop smoking, the brain benefits from improved circulation almost immediately, no matter your age.
  • Get your blood pressure and cholesterol levels under control. Both high blood pressure and high total cholesterol are associated with an increased risk of both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Improving those numbers are good for the brain as well as the heart.
  • Watch your weight. Extra pounds are a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. A 30+ year study of over 10,000 people found that people who were overweight in midlife were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s down the line, and those who were obese had three times the risk. Losing weight now can go a long way to protecting your brain later.
  • Drink only in moderation. Despite the hype over the brain benefits of red wine, the evidence is limited. What’s clear is that even moderately heavy alcohol consumption dramatically raises the risk of Alzheimer’s and accelerates brain aging.

More help for Alzheimer's and dementia

Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia Help Center: Educate yourself about Alzheimer's disease and dementia and make important decisions early to help you feel more in control.

Resources and references

Lifestyles for a healthy brain

Brain Health – Lifestyle choices may prevent brain deterioration as you age: stay mentally and physically active, socially involved, and adopt a brain-healthy diet. (Alzheimer’s Association)

Your Brain Health – Basics about brain health and how lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, mental stimulation, and socialization impact it. (Alzheimer’s Foundation of America)

Lifestyle Choices: Top 10 Rules – A list of top ten rules for keeping your brain healthy as you age. Includes links to articles on diet, mental exercise, physical activity, socialization, spirituality and religion and stress management. (Alzheimer’s Foundation of America)

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia prevention

Can Alzheimer’s Disease Be Prevented? (PDF) – Looks research into Alzheimer’s prevention, risk factors for the disease, and current prevention strategies. (The National Institute on Aging)

The Four Pillars of Prevention – How to prevent Alzheimer’s through diet, stress management, and mental and physical exercise. (Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation)

Prevention – Learn about the latest research on Alzheimer’s prevention, including the heart-head connection and the role of exercise, diet, and intellectual activity. (Alzheimer’s Association)

Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: August 2015.