Every three seconds, someone around the world is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and over 50 million people worldwide have this condition. Recent studies have shed light on a few simple lifestyle choices that one can make to help lead a generally healthy life and reduce the risks of acquiring the potentially deadly Alzheimer’s Disease.
3 Lifestyle Choices To Reduce The Risk Of Alzheimer’s Disease
1. Diet & Alzheimer’s Disease
“You are what you eat” is a common phrase to persuade us to eat healthy. But, how true is this statement? Recent studies have led scientists to believe that food choices may affect our overall health and well-being as we age. When it comes to age-related cognitive decline, the right food choices can be life changing.
The Mediterranean Diet
One diet choice that has received a great deal of attention as of late is the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet consists mainly of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, whole grains, legumes, fish, and other seafood.
In observational studies, researchers found that individuals on the Mediterranean diet had better results than ones following a Western diet pattern, which is high in red meat, saturated fats, and sugar. Individuals on the Mediterranean diet were found to be much more cognitively alert in their older age. They also experienced a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease.
What Role Does The Mediterranean Diet Play In Cognitive Health?
Researchers believe that the large percentage of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, a staple in the Mediterranean diet, may be key to enhancing higher cognitive function and slowing cognitive decline. Additionally, the amount of vitamins and minerals we consume may play a huge role in protecting the brain. Foods like nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables are high in anti-inflammatory properties and antioxidants. These may inhibit production of beta-amyloid deposits, which are common in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
With that said, research is still ongoing. Clinical trials are underway to solidify that the Mediterranean diet does, in fact, reduce the effects of Alzheimers.
What Role Do Individual Foods Play In Cognitive Health?
Researchers have found that foods with high anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties may help protect the brain from age-related cognitive decline. These foods include:
- Seafood (e.g., fish, shrimp, sardines)
- Berries (e.g., strawberries, raspberries, blueberries)
- Spices (e.g., sage, cumin, cinnamon, curcumin found in turmeric)
- Leafy greens (e.g., kale, spinach, swiss chard)
- Seeds (e.g., flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds)
- Cruciferous vegetables (e.g., broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts)
- Nuts (e.g., peanuts, almonds, walnuts, cashews)
One study in particular demonstrated that increased fish consumption may prevent cognitive decline. The study demonstrated that increasing levels of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in the diet led to a reduced number of beta-amyloid plaques, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s.
Foods To Avoid Consuming In Excessive Quantities
In contrast to the aforementioned studies, other studies show a reversal of effect due to overconsumption of foods that are detrimental to cognitive health. For example, in one study, it was found that increased salt consumption may play a role in increasing protein tau levels in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. In general, foods to avoid in excess include:
- Foods high in trans fat (avoid highly processed foods and fried foods)
- Sugar (cut back on fast foods and processed foods)
- Red meats (monitor portion size, preferably 1-2 portions a week; replace with poultry and fish when possible)
- Salt (opt for sea salt over iodized salt)
Research remains ongoing when it comes to dietary patterns and their association with Alzheimer’s. Researchers continue to pose questions regarding which foods are key to our brain health. How can diet-based interventions work to prevent cognitive decline?
2. Physical Activity & Alzheimer’s Disease
Physical activity reduces depression and improves heart health. Not much is presently known about the impacts of exercise on cognitive health. However, researchers do know that physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, helping clear away beta-amylose and keeping neurons from becoming over-stressed. It also helps to counteract natural reductions in brain synapses as one ages.
One study that helped shed additional light on physical activity’s role in reducing risks of dementia was performed on elderly women in Sweden. Published in the medical journal Neurology, the study found that women with improved cardiovascular health had an 88 percent lower risk of acquiring dementia than other women.
Based on scientific research, the Alzheimer’s Association and scientists from the University of Southern California have determined that cardiovascular exercise can indeed reduce risks of acquiring Alzheimer’s. They also determined that up to a third of Alzheimer’s cases are preventable through lifestyle changes, particularly through physical exercise.
The World Health Organization, or WHO, recommends that people aged 65 and over should fit in at least one of the following exercises weekly:
- 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise
- 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise
- A combination of moderate and vigorous aerobic exercise, along with muscle-strengthening activities.
Researchers believe that fitting in such exercises throughout the week can result in the following:
- Sharpened cognitive abilities (i.e., ability to reason, problem solve, and form decisions)
- Enhanced overall memory/recall abilities by increasing the size of the brain associated with memory formation (hippocampus)
- Delayed onset of Alzheimer’s for those most at risk and/or slow its progression
Physical Activity & Alzheimer’s Disease – The Ongoing Research
Exercise has been linked to a reduction in plaques and tangles in the brain, as well as improved performance on cognitive tests. However, research remains ongoing, and there are still many unknowns and contradictory data points.
For example, one clinical study compared high-intensity aerobic exercise to low-intensity stretching exercise routines in volunteers aged 65 and older. While the ability to plan and organize appeared to improve in the aerobic group, there was no improvement in short-term memory. Additional studies yielded similar findings.
In spite of this, evidence still leans largely toward incorporating physical activity for improved health benefits. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “encouraging evidence indicates that being more physically active is associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and a slower rate of cognitive decline in older adults.”
Questions researchers will continue to pose revolve around how exercise can prevent cognitive decline in the elderly, how much and which types of exercise are necessary to meet beneficial levels, and how exercise can reverse symptoms of cognitive decline.
3. Cognitive Training & Alzheimer’s Disease
Elderly people often find ways to “keep their minds busy” as they age. Budding research has shown that this is actually a great idea for cognitive health. What cognitive training does is enhance one’s ability to process information using structured activities which have the ability to improve memory and reasoning.
Strong evidence suggests that cognitive training provides both short-term and long-term benefits. One study that did a great job proving this came from an NIA-sponsored Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) trial. During the trial, adults aged 65 and older received speed-of-processing training under certified trainers over the course of five to six weeks. Some participants attended “booster” sessions approximately 11 months after training, and again at three years. Researchers found that the sessions significantly enhanced participants’ mental capacities in the areas trained, but not areas in which they were not. These results were observed to last even years after training ended.
Researchers also conducted long-term observational studies in which 2,000 participants aged 70 and older, all with normal cognition, performed cognitively-stimulating activities (e.g., reading, crafts, board games) over a period of about four years. Results demonstrated that these participants had a reduced risk of cognitive decline.
Cognitive Training & The Ongoing Research On Alzheimer’s
Some researchers theorize that cognitive activities help establish a “reserve” for the brain to operate effectively when damaged. Others insist that these activities help the brain remain adaptable in its mental functions and, thereby, compensate for decline of other areas.
As studies remain ongoing, scientists continue to work to answer questions surrounding cognitive training’s influence on Alzheimer’s. Future studies will examine how much mental stimulation from cognitive training in one’s daily routine is enough and how we can better zero in on the effects of cognitive training on the elderly.
When it comes to reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s, the good news is that it is a possibility. With continued research, scientists hope to one day find specific formulas that can help combat Alzheimer’s once and for all.