Decrease Your Risk of Alzheimer's and
Other Types of Dementia
by Dr. Diane Darby Beach
An estimated 5.5 million people in the United States have Alzheimer's disease. This number is expected to double by the year 2050 as the elderly segment of our population grows. As Baby Boomers age, the incidence of Alzheimer's disease will increase dramatically.
Is there anything you can do to prevent this from happening to you or someone you love? The answer is this: You may not be able to completely eliminate the possibility of getting the disease, but you can reduce your risk significantly by living a "brain-healthy life." Recent research has linked certain lifestyle components to an increase in cognitive function and a decreased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia. A brain-healthy lifestyle includes the following: physical exercise; mental exercise; sound nutrition; social connection; and avoidance of cardiovascular disease.
Physical Exercise: Get Moving!
Recent research studies show that regular physical exercise (three to four times a week) may have significantly positive effects on brain function. Ideally, you want to aim for exercise sessions of moderate duration (30-40 minutes each). If you can combine cardio or aerobic exercise with strength and flexibility training, you'll get the greatest cognitive benefit. Some examples include: walking; tennis; jogging; swimming; strength training; yoga, tai chi; and dancing.
You will be more successful at exercising if you do something that you like and something that is convenient. What does that mean? If you hate walking, don't make it your goal to walk 4-5 times a week. You will give up after a few times. Also, don't choose an exercise class that is 15 miles from where you live or 12 miles from work. You will be a lot less likely to make it to class!
If You Don't Use It, You Will Lose It: Exercise Your Brain!
Studies show that if we don't "exercise" our brains, we may actually lose brain function. For example, regular participation in activities that require higher levels of concentration or social interaction are associated with better cognitive function. In fact, people who engage in cognitively stimulating activities are less likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. In addition, those who frequently engage in leisure activities such as reading, playing board games, attending classes, or playing a musical instrument are significantly less likely to develop dementia. These types of activities actually stimulate new brain cell and neurotransmitter growth at any age. You can be 8, 18, 80, or 108 years old and still grow new brain cells!
You Are What You Eat
Studies show promising results regarding nutrition and brain health. For example, there appears to be a direct correlation between vitamin E and risk reduction of Alzheimer's disease. In addition, research shows the benefits of both vitamins C and E as a protective measure against dementia. Enrich your diet with deep, leafy green veggies such as spinach, kale, broccoli, and brussels sprouts. Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and prunes are all great for your brain. Vitamin E can be obtained by eating almonds, hazelnuts, and sunflower seeds. Lastly, consuming fish high in omega-3 fatty acids—such as salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna, and whitefish—has been associated with a significant reduction in risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
Researchers have noted that social connection reduces the risk of developing dementia. People who isolate are at greater risk of depression, which has been repeatedly associated with dementia. As such, remaining involved with friends and family may protect you or your parent from the detrimental cycle of loneliness that often leads to dementia.
Heart Health Equals Brain Health
Cardiovascular disease has been linked to brain health. In other words, what is good for your heart is good for your brain! Researchers have documented that those of us with high systolic blood pressure (the top number) have a 2.3-fold greater risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Moreover, individuals with low levels of HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol) are more than twice as likely to develop dementia compared with those who have high levels of this good kind of cholesterol. Watch your numbers; monitor your diabetes, control your blood pressure, and reduce the bad type of cholesterol.
A Brain-Healthy Life
Though preliminary, many study results give hope to those wanting to improve their brain function while possibly preventing the development of Alzheimer's or other types of dementia. Additionally, the lifestyle outlined here provides a plan for staying healthy, avoiding depression, and enjoying life!
Diane Darby Beach, MPH, Ed.D., is the Director of Education and Outreach for Vista Gardens Memory Care Community in Vista, CA. Dr. Beach has a master's degree in Public Health and a doctorate in Education. For the past 24 years, she has worked in the areas of health promotion and dementia and has presented her work at several different national and international conferences. She has published many articles in a number of health-related journals.