Who isn’t concerned about brain health? While Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia in older people and the fifth leading cause of death in the elderly. Dementia is a syndrome (a group of related symptoms) marked by decline in brain functioning and memory, thinking skills and other mental abilities. Although there are medications available that may temporarily help with symptoms, there is no cure or treatment that can stop or reverse Alzheimer’s disease.
The brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease begin years before the signs and symptoms. Once the symptoms and signs develop, they may include:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life
- Difficulty performing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure
- Confusion with time or place
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
- New problems with words in speaking or writing
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
- Decreased or poor judgment
What Determines the Risk of Developing Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease risk is determined by genetics and lifestyle. Certain people are at higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease genetically because of a gene called APOE4. APOE4 is a genetic variation of apolipoprotein E, a carrier of fats, including cholesterol, through the bloodstream. There are different forms of this gene, including APOE1, APOE2, APOE3, and APOE4. Research shows that having the APOE4 form increases the risk of late-onset Alzheimer disease (AD)
If a person has one copy of the APOE4 gene, they are three times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than people with other forms of the APOE gene. If a person has two copies of this gene, they are eight times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. One in four people has one copy of APOE4 while around 3% have two copies.
However, not everyone with the APOE4 gene develops Alzheimer’s disease. Lifestyle factors can reduce or increase risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Fortunately, scientists have identified lifestyle factors that lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease even in those with two copies of the APOE4 gene. By adopting these seven habits, scientists believe that even people at high risk of APOE4, from having one or two copies of the APOE4 gene, can lower their risk of dementia. A new study supports this finding. But what are these lifestyle factors?
Exercise could be the best prescription you can’t get at a pharmacy. The benefits of exercise are well known. It can help you lose weight, keep your mind sharp and lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems. One way in which exercise may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease is by improving insulin sensitivity. Some studies show exercise boosts glucose metabolism in the brain.
But no matter how much you exercise; some health experts say it won’t reduce your risk of early death if you spend most of the rest of your time sitting down. So, even if you work out regularly, stand up and move around to break up long periods of sitting too.
Eating a Healthy Diet
Diet influences every aspect of physical functioning, including brain function. Although a “healthy” diet is a vague term, a number of studies support the Mediterranean diet as a dietary approach to preserving brain health. A Mediterranean diet is a traditional eating pattern that’s mostly plant-based and includes a lot of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. It also includes fish, dairy products, olive oil and red wine in moderation. The Mediterranean diet is also a heart-healthy diet and may lower the risk of atherosclerotic disease. In turn that reduces the risk of vascular dementia, the second most common type.
Losing weight may lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease too. People who are obese are at higher risk, possibly because fat cells produce inflammatory chemicals that damage the brain and blood vessels. According to the American Heart Association, obesity affects brain function throughout life, not just in old age. Fortunately, lifestyle habits like exercise and a Mediterranean diet helps with weight management.
Lower Blood Sugar
Studies show people with diabetes have more beta-amyloid plaques in their brain and are also at higher risk of developing dementia. Several factors may be at play here. Elevated blood sugars damage blood vessels and can lead to vascular dementia and a decline in brain function. Plus, high blood sugars are associated with insulin resistance and inflammation. Keep tabs on your blood sugar level and lead a lifestyle that keeps it within a healthy range.
Maintain a Healthy Blood Pressure
One study discussed on the National Institutes of Health website, found that lowering blood pressure, naturally or with medications, reduced the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 16%. Research shows maintaining a healthy blood pressure also reduces the odds of developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
People with MCI have memory problems such as forgetting names and dates, or they may be more easily distracted than they were before. They may also experience challenges with planning and organizing or paying attention and problem-solving. Although they don’t have Alzheimer’s disease, they are at higher risk of developing it.
Keep tabs on your blood pressure by visiting your doctor regularly and check it at home too.
Elevated cholesterol isn’t just a risk factor for cardiovascular disease; it raises the risk of Alzheimer’s disease too. Studies show cholesterol contributes to amyloid plaque formation, plaques in the brain that are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. That’s why it’s important to monitor your blood cholesterol and other lipids via blood tests and take your doctor’s advice about getting it into a healthy range.
Smoking is another risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. If you’re at high risk of Alzheimer’s disease genetically, or even if you’re not, kicking the habit will lower your risk and improve your health. There’s another downside to smoking. Research shows smokers have smaller brain sizes, especially in a portion of the brain called the cortex. The cortex is the outer layer of your brain, and plays a role in language, attention, perception, and memory—all functions that are important to your mental health.
The Bottom Line
Fortunately, adopting these habits will lower your risk for other health problems too, including cardiovascular disease. The time you spend on living healthy is a good investment!
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- “Exercise may protect brain health by keeping insulin, BMI levels low.” 23 Apr. 2022, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/exercise-may-protect-brain-health-by-lowering-cardiovascular-risk-factors.
- “Mediterranean diet and dementia | Alzheimer’s Society.” https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/risk-factors-and-prevention/mediterranean-diet-and-dementia.
- Alford S, Patel D, Perakakis N, Mantzoros CS. Obesity as a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease: weighing the evidence. Obes Rev. 2018 Feb;19(2):269-280. doi: 10.1111/obr.12629. Epub 2017 Oct 10. PMID: 29024348.
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