Talk about scary: Though rare, early-onset Alzheimer's can begin as early as your '30s and '40s. And this can include everything from forgetting things that are important or getting lost in a familiar place to having difficulty managing money, according to Richard B. Lipton, M.D., a neurologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.
But if you occasionally forget your wedding anniversary, don't freak out. Only 5% of Alzheimer's cases -- about five million Americans over age 65 have the disease according to the National Institute on Aging -- are early-onset and they're usually genetic. Even better: Research has also found that adopting healthy habits now may significantly reduce your risk for developing it later. Here are a few recommended steps you can take:
1. Ditch the junk food.
Clear out the junk and stock up on more whole foods. Dr. Lipton suggests following a Mediterranean-style diet full of fish, fruits, and vegetables loaded with antioxidants, whole grains, and olive oil. He also advises taking a daily dose of 1,000 milligrams of vitamin D3.
2. Get moving.
You should probably dust your sneakers off. Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Longevity Center, says the vast amount of research has come to the same conclusion: Exercise can protect your brain. In his book, The Alzheimer's Prevention Program, he cites a study that included an additional finding. A 2010 report from the ongoing Framingham Longitudinal Study found that daily brisk walks led to a 40% lower chance of getting Alzheimer's. Don't love walking? Find something you do like and get your heart rate up regularly.
3. Take care of your heart.
High blood pressure and high cholesterol, both of which can destroy your arteries and cause heart disease, heart attack, and stroke, have been linked to Alzheimer's. In a postmortem study of Alzheimer's patients, 80% of those patients examined had cardiovascular disease, according to Alzheimer's Association.
4. Maintain a healthy weight.
If you're eating well and exercising regularly, this should be attainable, and it's an important goal to set. Being overweight doubles your risk of developing Alzheimer's, says Dr. Small. Being obese quadruples it. And here's the double-whammy: Being overweight ups your odds for type 2 diabetes. That, in turn, doubles your chances of getting Alzheimer's, Dr. Small says. Stack the deck in your favor and aim for an average weight.
5. Play brain games.
These are great because they stimulate your memory centers to keep your brain sharp. "Use it or lose it," says neuropsychologist Thomas Harding Psy.D., author of You Can Prevent Alzheimer's! The further you get from high school and college, the less often you use that part of your brain, according to Dr. Harding. So, you have to make brain games part of your routine. "Research has yet to determine how much and how often is optimal, but like anything else you are good at, the more often you do it, the better you are at it."
If you don't want to play online brain games (we really like Memory Matrix, Word Bubbles, and Speed Match), Dr. Lipton suggests some low-tech options: crossword puzzles, chess, writing for pleasure, or even having a lively discussion. Whatever engages you, just have fun!
-Heather M. Graham
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