When you think about it, it’s common sense that what keeps your brain sharp into old age also tends to ward of Alzheimer’s disease.
The trick, the Alzheimer’s Association (AA) says, is to actually think about staying all-round fit because, when it comes to good health, “people tend to think from the neck down.”
Although much about the mechanisms behind the development and progression of Alzheimer’s remains mysterious, there is increasing evidence that you can take some control over how your brain ages, which may coincide with reducing your risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
A study from the University of California-San Francisco suggests that adapting a healthy lifestyle and sticking to it may prevent up to 3 million Alzheimer’s cases internationally, nearly a half-million in the U.S.
The AA keeps the list of tips short:
Physical activity. This maintains good blood flow to the brain, thus delivering oxygen, and “encourages” the growth of new brain cells. Meanwhile, you also are reducing your chances of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes – all risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
A brain-healthy diet. This remains an educated guess, but research indicates that high cholesterol may increase the risk of stroke and brain damage. So, a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet makes sense. There also is some evidence that a diet rich in dark vegetables (spinach, broccoli) and fruits, which contain antioxidants, or molecules that fight cell death, may protect brain cells.
Friends. Remaining socially active makes everything you do more enjoyable and can reduce stress, which, again, helps maintain healthy brain cells and the connections that make executive commands from your control center quicker.
Mental challenges. Yes, it’s so overused that you may be prone to forget it, but “use it or lose it” has a basis in science. That doesn’t mean you need to be able to calculate the last digit in pi, but stimulating the brain strengthens its cells and those important connections between them that move commands along, so your body does what your brain tells it to do. Mental challenges also may ever create new nerve cells. Learn a new hobby or language, travel, take college courses. You can never have too many skills.
Another tip that just makes sense is to reduce stress. Think about it. Do you feel good mentally or physically when stressed out? Do you stick to a good diet or plunge head first into a bowl of ice cream when you’re stressed? Do you tend to your relationships and give something of yourself to keep them oiled, or do you close the curtains and dull your brain in front of some of the dumbest TV shows imaginable?
We all have some stress. It’s part of life. You can, however, learn to manage it.
That all sounds pretty simple, right? Yet, each suggestion takes work and stick-to-it-ive-ness. There are no days off, no “forgetting” to do something. If it helps, turn those suggestions into a written list and place it on your refrigerator or another location you walk by every day. There is also some science that suggests when you write something down, then read it, you tend to retain the message better and longer. And it reinforces your determination.
Perhaps most important of all is to keep in mind that what you do now, at 20, 30, or 40, can impact your susceptibility to Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia 40 or 50 years from now. The point is that the extent to which you can control your own mental destiny depends on acting now, rather than when Alzheimer’s symptoms begin to occur.
That said, established risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s disease include genetics and aging, which you can’t control.
The sooner you adopt a brain-healthy lifestyle the better. Scientists have found, in people with Alzheimer’s, amyloid plaques that block communication between nerve cells in the brain, and nerve tangles that block nutrients and other substances from circulating in the cells. Both are believed responsible for producing Alzheimer’s symptoms. A protein, named tau, may also be a culprit.
The scary part is that those plaques and tangles show up in brain scans long before symptoms appear, sometimes decades before. So, the sooner you adopt a brain-healthy lifestyle, the better. You may beat the odds, or you may not, but at least you’ve tipped them in your favor if you take known preventive measures now.
March 25, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA