This is the earliest that signs of Alzheimer’s evidence have ever been seen, but there are lifestyle tricks you can employ to help ward off the memory-decimating disease. (Photo: Getty Images/Nick Dolding)
Alzheimer’s disease may not be just for grandparents to worry about: Groundbreaking new research from Northwestern University has found that amyloid protein — a hallmark of the devastating disease — starts accumulating in brain neurons of people as young as 20 years old.
Scientists believe this is the first time that such changes have been noted in human brains so young. In the study, lead researcher Changiz Geula and his team from the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and team analyzed neurons from the brains of 13 “normal” young people ages 20 to 66; 16 people ages 70 to 99 without dementia; and 21 people with Alzheimer’s, ages 60 to 95.
“It was the age that really that surprised us,” Geula tells Yahoo! Health. “In the young adults, we already see accumulation of amyloids.” This becomes worrisome when amyloid clumps grow in size and abundance. The difference between old and young in this study: While the amyloids themselves were present in younger people — and clumps were present as well — there was more clumping in the aging and Alzheimer’s population, says Geula.
“What this means is these neurons are susceptible to accumulate at a young age, but that the clumping really occurs in aging. During life, the substance needed to make clumps is available. And if you have susceptibility to form clumps, this could worsen.”
So what does this mean for you? First, know this: “In this study, we didn’t have a huge number of brains,” says Geula. “And this doesn’t mean that because young people have a measure of amyloids that everyone is going to get Alzheimer’s. It’s not an alarm.”
But there are susceptibility factors (that science knows a lot about) — and protective factors (that science doesn’t know as much about) — when it comes to Alzheimer’s, Geula says. “We have known for a while that if we want effective therapy for Alzheimer’s, we have to start early. What these findings suggest is the earlier the better.”
So start today and protect yourself — and your brain —with these techniques, no matter your age.
1. Kick bad habits—stat. “We know that general cognitive aging and Alzheimer’s aging can be enhanced by many things — most importantly, general health,” says Geula. In fact, many health factors — diabetes, heart disease, pulmonary function, and obesity — can increase your risk of the disease.
2. Clean up your diet. Healthy habits like eating a Mediterranean diet (rich in nuts, greens, whole grains, fruits and veggies, poultry, and olive oil) have been linked to better cognitive function and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s.
3. Work it out. Exercise has been shown to enhance cognitive abilities in everyone, including the old and even the Alzheimer’s population. “Some animal studies show that the total amount of amyloid can be reduced in animals through enhanced exercise and enriched environment,” says Geula. And not only can exercise keep Alzheimer’s and dementia at bay, some research suggests it can even turn it around. When people with mild cognitive impairment walked on a treadmill for 30 minutes a day, four days a week for 12 weeks, people improved their neural efficiency using fewer mental resources to perform the same task.
4. Better your brain. Mental exercise — keeping your mind engaged and challenged through a variety of exercises — can also help. Research suggests that people who play cards, do crossword puzzles, and challenge themselves mentally on a regular basis are at a lower risk for developing the disease than those who don’t. And thinking on the bright side actually does matter: Negative thoughts can hinder your brain’s ability to think straight and form memories, according to research from King’s College in London.