If someone told you that there was a pill with no side effects and strong evidence showing that it helps prevent Alzheimer’s disease, would you take it? Of course, you would!
The truth is, there’s no such “magic bullet,” but most adults do have the ability to dramatically decrease their risk for this dreaded disease.
A window of opportunity: According to the latest scientific evidence, slowing or blocking Alzheimer’s plaques (buildups of dangerous protein fragments), which are now known to develop years before memory loss and other symptoms are noticeable, could be the key to stopping this disease.
To learn more, Bottom Line/Health spoke with Dr. Kenneth S. Kosik, a renowned neuroscientist who has researched Alzheimer’s for 25 years. He shared with us the habits that he incorporates into his daily routine to help prevent Alzheimer’s…
STEP 1: Make exercise exciting. You may know that frequent exercise—particularly aerobic exercise, which promotes blood flow to the brain—is the most effective Alzheimer’s prevention strategy. Unfortunately, many people become bored and stop exercising.
Scientific evidence: Because exercise raises levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, it promotes the growth of new brain cells and may help prevent shrinkage of the hippocampus (a part of the brain involved in memory).
What I do: Most days, I spend 35 minutes on an elliptical trainer, followed by some weight training (increasing muscle mass helps prevent diabetes—an Alzheimer’s risk factor). To break up the monotony, I go mountain biking on sunny days. I advise patients who have trouble sticking to an exercise regimen to try out the new virtual-reality equipment available in many gyms. While riding a stationary bike, for example, you can watch a monitor that puts you in the Tour de France!
Also helpful: To keep your exercise regimen exciting, go dancing. A recent 20-year study found that dancing reduced dementia risk more than any other type of exercise—perhaps because many types of dancing (such as tango, salsa and Zumba) involve learning new steps and aerobic activity. Do the type of dancing that appeals to you most.
STEP 2: Keep your eating plan simple. A nutritious diet is important for Alzheimer’s prevention, but many people assume that they’ll have to make massive changes, so they get overwhelmed and don’t even try. To avoid this trap, keep it simple—all healthful diets have a few common elements, including an emphasis on antioxidant-rich foods (such as fruit and vegetables)…not too much red meat…and a limited amount of processed foods that are high in sugar, fat or additives.
Scientific evidence: Research has shown that people who consume more than four daily servings of vegetables have a 40% lower rate of cognitive decline than those who get less than one daily serving.
What I do: I try to eat more vegetables, particularly broccoli, cauliflower and other crucifers—there’s strong evidence of their brain-protective effects. Helpful: I’m not a veggie lover, so I roast vegetables with olive oil in the oven to make them more appetizing. Whenever possible, I use brain-healthy spices such as rosemary and turmeric.
STEP 3: Guard your sleep. During the day, harmful waste products accumulate in the brain. These wastes, including the amyloid protein that’s linked to Alzheimer’s, are mainly eliminated at night during deep (stages 3 and 4) sleep.
Scientific evidence: In a long-term Swedish study, men who reported poor sleep were 1.5 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those with better sleep.
Regardless of your age, you need a good night’s sleep. While ideal sleep times vary depending on the person, sleeping less than six hours or more than nine hours nightly is linked to increased risk for cardiovascular disease—another Alzheimer’s risk factor. If you don’t feel rested when you wake up, talk to your doctor about your sleep quality.
What I do: I often take a 10-minute nap during the day. Brief naps (especially between 2 pm and 4 pm, which syncs with most people’s circadian rhythms) can be restorative.
STEP 4: Don’t be a loner. Having regular social interaction is strongly associated with healthy aging.
Scientific evidence: Older adults who frequently spend time with others—for example, sharing meals and volunteering—have about a 70% lower rate of cognitive decline than those who don’t socialize much.
What I do: To stay socially active, I regularly Skype, attend conferences and stay in touch with other scientists and postdoc students.
If you’re lonely, any form of social interaction is better than none. One study found that people who used computers regularly—to write e-mails, for example—were less lonely than those who didn’t. If you can’t connect in person, do a video chat or Facebook update at least once a day. Also helpful: Having a pet. Pets are sometimes better listeners than spouses!
STEP 5: Stay calm. People who are often stressed are more likely to experience brain shrinkage.
Scientific evidence: In a three-year study of people with mild cognitive impairment (a condition that often precedes Alzheimer’s), those with severe anxiety had a 135% increased risk for Alzheimer’s, compared with those who were calmer.
What I do: I go for long walks.
Other great stress reducers: Having a positive mental attitude, deep breathing, yoga, tai chi, meditation—and even watching funny movies. Practice what works for you.
STEP 6: Push yourself intellectually. So-called “brain workouts” help prevent Alzheimer’s—perhaps by increasing cognitive reserve (the stored memories/cognitive skills that you can draw on later in life)…and possibly by accelerating the growth of new brain cells.
Scientific evidence: In an important study, older adults (including those with a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s) who frequently read, played board games or engaged in other mental activities were able to postpone the development of the disease by almost a decade.
But don’t fool yourself—if you’re an accomplished pianist, then banging out a tune won’t help much even though a nonmusician is likely to benefit from learning to play. Push your mental abilities—do math problems in your head, memorize a poem, become a tutor, etc.
What I do: To challenge myself intellectually, I read novels and practice my foreign language skills—I do research in Latin America, so I work on my Spanish.