7 actionable steps to take at any age to prevent Alzheimer's disease
Alzheimer’s disease, and other forms of dementia, are adversely affecting our aging population at an alarming rate.
Starting at 65, the prevalence of dementia more than doubles every 5 years of life. So while the likelihood of being diagnosed with dementia is less than 1% at 65, by 85 that number jumps to 25%. Approximately 1 in 4 Canadians age 85 and older have been diagnosed with a form of dementia.
Because Alzheimer’s affects such a large percentage of our population and has such adverse effects on the quality of life, a lot of research has been done into this disease. While scientists are still unable to determine the exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease, most agree that it is a combination of a variety of factors—from age-related changes in the brain, environmental and lifestyle factors, and genetics.
Furthermore, researchers have been able to uncover a variety of risk factors that can help us take action today to help prevent the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s as we age.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
We hear a lot about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, but did you know that Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia? It is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60-80% of all cases.
Dementia is not a single disease, but instead an umbrella term that covers a wide range of medical conditions characterized by abnormal brain changes. These changes to the brain set off a reaction that results in a decline in cognitive function that is severe enough to negatively affect your ability to function independently and live your day-to-day life.
In Alzheimer’s disease, high levels of specific proteins inside and outside brain cells inhibit the cells' ability to communicate and stay healthy. It affects the hippocampus—the processing center for learning and memory—and brain cells in this area are often the first ones to be damaged. It is because of the connection to the hippocampus that memory loss is one of the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s.
Other signs and symptoms of dementia include problems with:
- Short-term memory
- Keeping track of things like a purse, wallet, phone, or keys
- Paying bills
- Remembering appointments
- Learning new things
- Adapting to new situations
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disease—the signs of the disease may start slowly but will get worse over time. But there are things you can do at any age to help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
How to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease
There is no definitive cause of Alzheimer’s disease, but the robust research that has gone into this disease has found a variety of lifestyle factors that are linked to its onset.
Here are 7 ways to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease that you can do now and continue to do at any age.
1. Quit smoking
Smoking is one of the biggest risk factors for developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Studies have found that those who have quit smoking or have never smoked, have a significantly decreased risk of overall dementia and specifically of Alzheimer’s disease. When you stop smoking, the brain benefits from improved circulation almost immediately, so those who currently smoke should be encouraged to stop to help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s.
2. Eat fewer carbs and more fat
Modern, western diets are high in carbohydrates and researchers have found a link between these diets and incidences of Alzheimer’s. Because the cause of Alzheimer’s is still not fully understood, studies look at the characteristics of the disease to find preventative measures. Impaired brain glucose metabolism and amyloid β plaques have been linked to Alzheimer’s—both of which are associated with highly processed carbohydrate diets. Therefore, eating a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet—like the Keto diet—has been suggested as a preventative measure and a treatment for Alzheimer’s.
3. Keep an eye on your blood pressure
High blood pressure and hypertension have been identified as one of the largest risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s disease. It is important to schedule your yearly check-ups with your doctor to continue screening for high blood pressure and hypertension.
4. Add leafy greens to your plate
Another dietary change that can help prevent Alzheimer’s is the addition of leafy greens to your diet. Adding leafy greens to your diet was linked to slower cognitive decline. Researchers recommend adding 1 serving per day of leafy greens and other foods rich in phylloquinone, lutein, nitrate, folate, α-tocopherol, and kaempferol. Try adding spinach, asparagus, beets, kale, broccoli, bell peppers, or radishes to your next meal or season with dill, chives, or tarragon.
5. Make exercise part of your daily routine
Add “Alzheimer's prevention” to the list of reasons why you should get up and get active every day. The 2020 study “Physical exercise in the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer's disease” found that low levels of physical activity are an Alzheimer’s risk factor. Because exercise regulates amyloid β turnover, the release of neurotrophins, and cerebral blood flow, it helps to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s. It’s important to stay active at every stage of your life, but research shows the importance of getting older populations who have stopped being active back into a more active lifestyle.
6. Give your brain a cognitive workout
Neurologists have reported that engaging in mental workouts can reduce your chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease by up to 70%. Not sure how to work out your brain? Try an activity that is outside of your normal routine, involves at least 2 senses, and engages your attention. Whether you work on a Sudoku or crossword puzzle, start journaling, read a new book, or learn a new board game, you’ll be giving your brain a great workout.
7. Be aware of other health issues
There are a lot of other health issues that seem to intersect with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. While some of these factors have not been studied in-depth yet, researchers have brought them to our attention to ensure they are studied. Depression, diabetes, obesity, and dyslipidemia have all been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and should be monitored closely by your medical team.
The benefit of a lot of these steps is two-fold—not only will it lower your risk of Alzheimer’s, but also has the potential to lower your risk of developing other chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
Please always check with a medical professional to ensure these strategies are right for you.
Other resources you may be interested in:
- Episode 1: Better than drinking from the fountain of youth (podcast)
- Episode 3: Can physical activity slow the decline of aging? (podcast)
- Episode 4: Aging, anxiety, and the effects of stress on the body (podcast)
- Episode 6: What does it mean to live a long, healthy life? (podcast)
- Episode 9: Clear the clouds: Everyday changes to help you beat brain fog (podcast)