Mental health experts estimate that by the year 2050, there will be more than 16 million people with Alzheimer’s disease in North America. Can any of this be prevented? A lot of new evidence suggests that there are ways to maintain brain health, but there’s a catch. Just like many illnesses, prevention must start early. If you wait until you begin to have problems, it may be too late.
Currently, there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, but there may be ways to prevent the disease or delay its onset. Let’s find out the best ways to keep your brain healthy.
Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s
If we look at the risk factors for Alzheimer’s, we get a good idea about prevention. Some risk factors are nonmodifiable, such as age. Others, like high blood pressure or smoking, can be controlled. According to the Mayo Clinic, the major risk factors are:
- Advanced age
- Genetic predisposition
- History of head trauma
- Lack of exercise
- Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke
- High blood pressure
- High blood cholesterol
- Poorly controlled type 2 diabetes
- A diet lacking in fruits and vegetables
- Social isolation and depression
Think Like a Neuron
Now while diet and exercise are important (and we’ll get to this later), some other factors are critical for brain health. The human brain is made up of about 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. Just like people, healthy neurons are ones that are active and have many connections. Also, healthy brain cells carry a special characteristic called neuroplasticity. This means that they can maintain a robust cell structure and can compensate against injury or disease.
Social Connections Matter
Several studies have shown that people with multiple and diverse social ties are at less risk for dementia. There are a few reasons why an active social life might protect your brain. First of all, being social means keeping up with people. Staying up to date about important events and keeping in touch stimulates the brain. Since life varies so much, the events and stories are never the same. In other words, it takes a mental effort to maintain personal ties.
The other reason that social connections may prevent Alzheimer’s is that loneliness increases the risk of dementia. This could be related to the simple fact that having friends reduces stress. When you have someone to talk to, you naturally feel better. So keep up with friends, join a club or connect with a group hobby to help keep your brain healthy.
As suggested, stress may be associated with a higher risk of cognitive decline. Several studies have shown that people exposed to chronic stress have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. One of the mechanisms behind this may be that chronic stress increases blood cortisol levels, which can lead to cell damage, including neurons. Still, the reason stress can increase the risk of dementia is certainly multifactorial.
Keep Your Brain Busy
People with jobs that keep their brains active also seem to have lower chances of developing dementia. Occupations that appear to give the highest level of protection are lawyer, teacher, social worker, engineer and doctor. However, jobs like laborer, cashier, grocery shelf stocker and machine operator appear to come with a higher risk of disease.
Even if your job isn’t protective, that doesn’t mean you can’t stimulate your brain. For example, the number/logic puzzle Sudoku exercises the brain, which keeps nerve cells healthy. Other activities like crossword puzzles, writing, or even learning another language might be helpful as well. Some even suggest eating with your non-dominant hand as a type of brain stimulation practice.
It’s important to reemphasize the importance of human contact. Human beings are complex and unpredictable. For that reason, you need a flexible and agile mind to deal with people. That’s why human interaction is one of the best ways to maintain mental health.
Many studies show that regular exercise is just as good for the mind as it is for the body. One of the main reasons for this is that exercise helps maintain a steady blood supply to the brain. By delivering oxygen and nutrients, while removing toxins and waste, good circulation is critical for optimal brain health.
Beyond the favorable effects on circulation, exercise may have other benefits to preserve brain function. Some potential mechanisms are:
- Increased expression of brain healthy genes (synapsin I and synaptophysin)
- Increased production of enzymes required to maintain neuroplasticity
- Improved neuron structure
- Increase in new nerve cell production (neurogenesis)
How Much Exercise Is Necessary for Brain Health?
Current medical research does not provide strict guidelines about how much exercise is required to prevent dementia. Some studies suggest that a brisk one hour walk twice a week is sufficient – or 120 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week. Other regimens based on heart health recommend 30 minutes of exercise at least five times a week or 150 minutes per week.
If you work out more than this, it probably provides even more benefit. Still, the amount of protection you get reach a limit after a certain level of exercise.
Blood Pressure Control
Another big risk factor for Alzheimer’s is uncontrolled high blood pressure. As we mentioned already, good circulation is good for the brain. High blood pressure interferes with circulation, so bringing those numbers down is good for your neurons. Studies show that no matter what medication you use, controlling high blood pressure can significantly reduce your risk for developing dementia.
Does Diet Affect Brain Function?
Despite a wide range of research surrounding the effect of nutrition on memory, conclusive evidence is hard to come by. For example, vitamin E has been shown in some studies to be protective, but not in others. The reasoning behind the potential benefits of Vitamin E is due to its antioxidant properties. Some of the controversy also revolves around what dose of the vitamin is required to offer protection.
If there’s any consensus, then two diets have the most convincing evidence showing some benefit in dementia prevention. These are the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet.
Mediterranean Diet & DASH Diet
This Mediterranean diet emphasizes plenty of fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, healthy grains, fish, olive oil, and small amounts of meat, dairy, and red wine. With this diet, red meat is limited to once a week at most, and fish or chicken is consumed at least twice a week. The red wine component is optional and should be limited to one glass per day. Also, olive oil is preferred over butter or corn oil.
Similar to the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet emphasizes cutting back on foods that are high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and trans fats. Both diets also limit salt, sweets, and pastries. A variation called the DASH-Sodium diet calls for reducing sodium to 1,500 milligrams a day (about 2/3 teaspoon).
It’s no coincidence that both of these diets are also recommended for people who have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or heart problems.
Specific Brain Healthy Foods
Within the two diets described above, certain foods have been shown to have a potential added benefit to brain health. Most of them either have antioxidant properties or are high in omega 3 fatty acids, such as in some fish. Specific foods that may protect you from developing Alzheimer’s are:
- Blueberries, strawberries and raspberries
- Spinach, broccoli and cauliflower
- Salmon, mackerel, halibut and tuna
What About Supplements?
There are a wide variety of herbs, vitamins, minerals and other supplements available commercially that claim to benefit neuron health. Unfortunately, the medical evidence supporting their use may not be conclusive. This doesn’t mean they aren’t beneficial, however. Further research needs to be done before doctors start recommending supplements to prevent Alzheimer’s. Some commonly mentioned herbs or supplements are:
- Coenzyme Q10
- Alpha lipoic acid
- Ginkgo biloba
One of the problems with nutritional supplements is that they do not require FDA approval like other medications. There’s a lot of propaganda out there that recommends these supplements, and some sellers are just trying to make money. The jury is still out on these. In any case, a healthy diet alone goes a long way in keeping your mind healthy in addition to caring for your circulation and heart.
If you want to keep your brain healthy for the long run, focus on these strategies:
- Get regular exercise and control your blood pressure
- Eat a healthy diet focused on fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts and grains
- Stay connected socially
- Engage in mental exercises that challenge your brain
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Alzheimer’s Disease Symptoms and Causes. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alzheimers-disease/symptoms-causes/dxc-20167103
Complex jobs and social ties appear to help ward off Alzheimer’s, new research shows. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/complex-jobs-and-social-ties-appears-to-help-ward-off-alzheimers-new-research-shows/2016/07/22/5f227bc4-4fca-11e6-a7d8-13d06b37f256_story.html?utm_term=.f9303a449a50
Feeling Lonely Increases Alzheimer’s Risk. https://www.alzinfo.org/articles/feeling-lonely-increases-alzheimers-risk-2/
The Influence of Chronic Stress on Dementia-Related Diagnostic Change in Older Adults. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3290680/
Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills. Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease – Pillar 1: Diet & Supplements