Rich or poor, famous or anonymous, civilian or President of the United States—Alzheimer's disease does not discriminate.
The most common form of dementia, it affects about five million Americans today. That number will increase considerably in the next 30 years, to a projected 16 million Americans in 2050—which makes gaining a greater understanding of this disease critical.
Yet Alzheimer's continues to intrigue and confound researchers. It's a complex disease with many risk factors, some of which you can't change, like your age or genes. But some promising research is being done that shows that you can reduce your risk of Alzheimer's and dementia through simple lifestyle tweaks.
Read on to discover the healthy habits that may keep Alzheimer's at bay, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You Have "Long" COVID and May Not Even Know It.
You're Not Getting Enough Sleep
Harvard Health reports that sound sleep may help protect your brain against Alzheimer's disease. Studies have shown a connection between poor sleep and a higher risk of beta-amyloid protein plaque accumulation—one of the telltale signs of the disease. Amyloid proteins accumulate in your brain daily. When you are in slow-wave sleep—the deep sleep phase when your memories are shored up—your brain sweeps out any surplus amyloid proteins. If your sleep is interrupted, however, during this slow-wave phase, these amyloid proteins can build up, forming plaque on brain tissue. Researchers think this may be the initial stage of Alzheimer's, and that it may occur years before symptoms emerge.
The Rx: Getting a solid seven to eight hours of sleep is the recommendation.
You're Not Exercising
Get moving: Regular exercise can reduce your risk by up to 50 percent according to the Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation. Studies show that women from ages 40 to 60 who exercised regularly demonstrated a profound reduction in cognitive decline and memory loss. The benefits of regular physical activity extend to those who have already been diagnosed: Studies show that regular exercise can slow further deterioration in those who have begun to demonstrate cognitive problems. It's thought that exercise protects against Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia by stimulating the brain's ability to maintain old connections while creating new ones.
The Rx: So, what is the recommended amount of physical activity? An ideal plan involves aerobic exercise and strength training. Aim for 30 to 40 minutes, three to four days a week.
You're Not Eating a Mediterranean Diet
Prevention starts with the food choices you make. What you eat is critical for optimal brain health, and with the right Alzheimer's diet, you can influence the health of your genes. Studies of people who ate a Western diet versus those who ate a Mediterranean diet are striking. Brain scans taken at the beginning of one study show that those eating a Western diet already had more amyloid protein deposits than those eating a Mediterranean diet. Scientists believe these proteins are a waste product from the energy expended when brain cells communicate.
The Rx: When we talk about the Mediterranean diet, we're talking about eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, olive oil, fish, moderate amounts of eggs, dairy, red wine, and eating red meat sparingly.
You're Not Connecting Socially
Humans are highly social. We do not do well in isolation, and as it turns out, neither do our brains. Studies show that staying socially engaged can protect against Alzheimer's and other dementias. Developing and nurturing a strong social network is a priority for both mental and brain health. Face-to-face connection with folks who care about you, and whom you care about, is key.
The Rx: You don't have to be the life of the party, but you do need time to connect with people who make you feel heard and who stimulate your mind.
You're Not Drinking — But Just a Little
A glass of good wine at the end of the day can help clear the mind, and now research shows that it might actually be good for the brain too! There is conflicting evidence that moderate consumption of alcohol—one to two drinks a day for men, one for women—reduces the risk of Alzheimer's. Some studies have shown that drinking in moderation can lower inflammation in the body and help your brain clear away toxins associated with Alzheimer's. But the key is moderation: There's strong evidence that drinking heavily on a regular basis increases the risk of Alzheimer's and dementia—so tipple just a little.
The Rx: Check the French wine shelf in your local wine store. A study done in the French wine-producing region of Bordeaux found that red wine might be of particular benefit!
You're Not Keeping a Healthy Weight
Here's another reason to trim that waistline! Recent research shows that people that obese or overweight at age 50 could be an increased risk for developing Alzheimer's at an earlier age. Researchers found that study participants with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or higher at age 50 were likely to develop Alzheimer's seven months sooner than those in the study who were at a healthy weight. As well, the study showed that the higher the BMI, the sooner the disease occurred.
The Rx: A good way to start dropping weight is by saying bye-bye to carbonated beverages. One can of Coke contains 39 grams of added sugar, which is more than the American Heart Association recommends per day (36 grams for men and 25 grams for women)!
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You're Not Learning New Things
Keep learning and you can help lower your risk of Alzheimer's disease. The more you do it, the stronger your brain becomes. Research is still being done, but studies point to mental stimulation acting like a workout for your brain. A fun way to do this is to make like Rodney Dangerfield and go back to school (not high school, but enroll in a Spanish class or learn to play guitar)! According to researchers at Harvard, new brain cell growth continues even into late adulthood—and the action of learning and having new experiences can stimulate that process.
The Rx: Study a foreign language, learn to paint or sculpt, practice a musical instrument. The more novel and complex the activity, the greater the brain benefit.
You're Not Buckling Up or Wearing a Helmet
Keep your noggin as safe as you can. Certain types of head injuries may increase your risk of developing Alzheimer's or dementia. Factors that may affect your risk include the severity of an injury you may have had and the age when you sustained it. If you injure your head in a car accident or take a spill from your bike without a helmet, it could increase your risk of Alzheimer's years from now. Want to be "brain smart"? Buckle up every time you get in the car no matter how short the trip, and wear a helmet when biking.
The Rx: As we age, falls are an increasing risk. Check your home for places you may slip or trip. For instance, if you have an area rug, make sure it's got floor-gripping padding underneath to keep it in place. Install easy-to-grab bars in your shower to help minimize risk.
You're Not Getting Balanced, Practicing Coordination
With head injuries from falls an increasing risk as you age, staying steady on your feet becomes all the more critical. Doing balance and coordination exercises can keep you agile and help you avoid falls. Studies show that exercise is a well-established way to keep you steady and strong—and as you can see from this guide, it has multiple benefits for the brain and body.
The Rx: Try yoga, Pilates, or Tai Chi to help stay healthy and coordinated.
You're Not Managing Your Blood Pressure
It's not just bad for your heart; many studies also show a connection between high blood pressure and dementia. In fact, autopsy studies show it's common for people with Alzheimer's-related brain changes to also have signs of vascular damage in the brain. Observational studies have linked high blood pressure in middle age, along with diabetes and smoking, as raising one's risk for developing Alzheimer's or dementia.
The Rx: Keeping your blood pressure down is good for your heart and brain. One way to do that is to limit your alcohol intake to no more than one or two drinks a day.
You Didn't Quit Smoking
Here's another reason to quit: smoking is perhaps the most preventable risk factor for Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Not everyone who smokes will get Alzheimer's, but some studies indicate that risk increases with duration and intensity of smoking, and decreases with time after quitting smoking.
The Rx: Butt out! When you stop smoking, the brain benefits from improved circulation almost immediately, and your skin will look better too. And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.