Practical Steps to Reduce the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

November 5, 2010

In a previous post (click here), Robert Kane Pappas highlighted the promising research results relating to Alzheimer’s disease (AD) based on one study by a team led by Gizem Donmez in Dr. Lenny Guarente’s Lab at MIT and another involving rapamycin, an anti-rejection drug that targets the mTOR gene.  Translating promising results in the lab into commercially viable pharmaceuticals generally available to the public takes time.  As the daughter of a mother living with AD, I often wonder, what can I do now, what lifestyle changes can I make to help delay or prevent AD as we wait for a cure?  A quick survey of the information available on the web produced the following list of practical steps (which will probably improve your overall health, and not just your brain health).

1.  Keep Moving

Moderate exercise, i.e., 30 minutes five times a week can reduce the risk of AD by as much as 35%.  Include aerobic exercise (walking, jogging, swimming, biking, tennis, etc.) to improve oxygen intake and strength training with light or moderate weights or resistance training to maintain bone density, muscle mass and cognitive health.  Stretching keeps you agile, trim and improves balance (which decreases the risk of falling).  Look for opportunities in everyday life to be physically active, such as, gardening, climbing stairs, even cleaning the house (ugh!).

2.  Watch your diet — Stay Trim

A well-balanced diet, with portion control to prevent obesity, and eating habits that reduce inflammation and promote normal energy production, are healtier for your brain, including:

  • increasing intake of fruits and vegetables of all colors, including those rich in vitamin E (e.g., blackberries, blueberries, spinach, broccoli) and beta-carotene (e.g., leafy green and yellow vegetables like brocoli and sweet potatoes), dark-skinned fruits and vegetables have the highest levels of naturally occurring antioxidants;
  • whole grains, fat-free and low-fat milk products, lean meats (limited to only a few times a month), poultry, fish, beans eggs and nuts (especially walnuts, which even look like your brain);
  • Omega-3 fatty acids — found in cold water fish, e.g, salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, herring, sardines and lake trout, green leafy vegetables, flaxseed oil, avocados and walnuts;
  • foods that contain B6 and B12 — found in bananas, beans, chicken breasts (B6) and shellfish, salmon, trout, liver and lean beef (B12);
  • foods rich in antioxidants (see above), which can help protect the brain from the formation of free radicals –  found in berries (blueberries, blackberries), nuts (walnuts and pecans), vegetables (artichokes and red cabbage) and spices (tumeric and ground cinnamon);
  • choosing to use extra virgin olive oil for cooking and salads;
  • drinking tea (green, white or black) and/or coffee; 2-4 cups daily appears to have benefits;
  • maintain consistent levels of insulin and blood sugar by eating several small meals throughout the day;
  • drink alcohol in moderation, no more than one or two glasses of beer or wine (preferably red) per day;
  • eat dark chocolate in moderation, 70% cocoa or greater (I like 85% myself);
  • avoid packaged, refined and processed foods, especially those high in sugars and white flour (they spike glucose levels and inflame your brain) and too much red meat, fried food, saturated fats, trans-fatty acids and salt;
  • eating local and organic foods as often as you can.

Certain supplements may have benefits, but they will be examined in a separate post.

3.  Keep Your Mind Active

Evidence suggests that an active, stimulated brain may help reduce the risk of AD.  Those who remain engaged in activities involving multiple tasks, requiring communication, interaction and organization, who continue to learn and constantly challenge their brains, gain the greatest protection.

  • Never stop learning, read a good book, learn a foreign language or to play an instrument, study philosophy, world religions of the science of aging;
  • Practice memorization (just like in Catholic school), start with short poems and work your way up to Hamlet (not just the soliloquy, the whole play);
  • Play brain and strategy games with family and friends, it’s fun!
  • Shake up your routine; take a new route home, eat or write with you other hand, rearrange your desk at work, vary your habits regularly, be game to try new things.

4.  Get Plenty of Sleep

Your brain needs regular, restful sleep to process, store and recall information (experts recommend 7 to 9 hours each night).

5.  Learn to Relax

Long term chronic stress increases your risk of developing AD, but simple stress management tools can help minimize the harmful effects of stress, such as, cognitive decline, premature aging, depression and other negative effects on the brain.  The following is an incomplete list of some stress management techniques: moderate physical exercise (see Step 1); breathing exercises; yoga; Tai Chi; meditation (see previous post); positive thinking; listening to music; massage or prayer.

6.  Cultivate Social Relationships

Research has shown that people with greater social ties are significantly less likely to demonstrate cognitive decline when compared to those who are lonely and isolated.  University of Michigan researchers who tested 3,610 people between the ages of 24 and 96 found that 10 minutes of social interaction improved cognitive performance.  Work to develop a strong social support system of family and friends, join groups and clubs, volunteer, share a meal with friends, play a board game with family members.  Have fun as you improve your brain health.

7.  Explore Your Spirituality

Most scientists acknowledge a strong mind-body connection and various studies associate personal spiritual activities with better cognitive aging.  Regular meditation, prayer, reflection and religious practice may help immunize you against the damaging effects of stress (see previous post).

8.  Use Your Head — Protect your Brain

Avoid smoking, wear a helmet when you engage in a sport or activity that could result in a brain injury (biking, skiing, football, boxing, etc.), pay attention (don’t speak on your cell phone or send emails while driving), don’t do anything stupid (wear your seatbelt), limit chronic exposure to environmental contaminants, such as lead, pesticides, mold and other substances in your environment that may damage your brain.

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