Lifestyle Choices Can Help Reduce the Risk of Alzheimer's Disease
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, affecting memory, thinking and behavior. Alzheimer’s disease progressively destroys brain cells. There are treatments to temporarily reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s but there are no treatments to prevent, cure or slow the progression of the disease. Alzheimer’s and other dementias are not a normal part of aging but they occur most frequently after age 65.
There are three factors that determine the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s – genes, environment and lifestyle. The risk of developing Alzheimer’s is increased if a close family member has the disease. This may be due to either genetic or environmental factors. The genes that decisively determine whether a person will develop Alzheimer’s are very rare but there are genes that increase risk of the disease. Environmental risks that contribute to Alzheimer’s include air quality, exposure to toxic materials and head injuries. Genetic factors can’t be modified to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and, fortunately, most Americans have low environmental risks.
As for the third factor, lifestyle choices, there are changes that can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s risk. Identifying reasons for taking care of yourself as you age is the first step toward improving your lifestyle to mitigate the risk of Alzheimer’s. What gives you joy, what do you want to be doing in ten years, what are you grateful for? Working from these and other priorities will make it easier to stay motivated to make long lasting lifestyle changes that will help you age well.
Take Care of Your Heart
Risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure also negatively impact your brain’s health. For every heartbeat, 25% of the blood goes to the brain.
Protecting your heart will also help protect your brain. Keep track of your blood pressure, blood sugar, weight and cholesterol and work to keep them low.
Quit Smoking and Avoid Excess Alcohol
Quitting smoking and consuming less than three drinks per day helps both your heart and your brain. In a 2008 study, researchers found that heavy drinkers developed Alzheimer’s nearly 5 years earlier and heavy smokers (over one pack per day) developed the disease just over 2 years earlier than study participants who didn’t smoke or drink excessively.
Continue Your Education
Formal education has been shown to reduce the risk of cognitive decline. With the internet, there are plenty of ways to continue your education for free! Make a commitment to sign up for an on-line class or take a class provided in your community. You’ll learn something new and create new neural pathways that will reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Get the Right Amount of Sleep
No one knows for certain why sleep helps reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. One theory is that sleep helps the brain perform critical housekeeping chores with the synapses. Another theory is that sleep washes toxic substances out of the brain such as beta amyloid and tau proteins that are associated with Alzheimer’s. Lower levels of deep sleep have been associated with higher levels of the chemicals in the brain that result in Alzheimer’s. For adults over 65, the recommended amount of sleep is 7-8 hours a night. Sleeping 7-9 hours per night is recommended for adults aged 24-64. Getting too much sleep is also associated with Alzheimer’s, particularly napping. This is possibly due to lack of quality sleep. To support quality sleep, refrain from drinking alcohol or caffeine close to bedtime, get regular exercise, and keep a regular bedtime routine and sleep schedule. Eating a low-carbohydrate diet can also help improve the quality of your sleep.
Stay Socially Engaged
Staying active in your community, volunteering, and engaging with family and friends regularly have all been shown to improve brain health and reduce the level of toxic brain chemicals. Changing up your social routine is also very healthy. Take a trip with friends or family. Start a new volunteer activity. Social engagement has been shown to reduce depression and stress. It is also associated with living longer with fewer disabilities.
Engaging in vigorous exercise leads to increased blood flow which improves brain health. Start out small and do something you like! The important objective is to increase your heart rate. If you can chat while you’re exercising, you’re not working hard enough. Be sure to check with your healthcare provider before starting an exercise program.
Take on New Challenges
Keeping your mind active promotes the formation of new connections among the brain cells. Mentally stimulating activities help maintain and can even improve cognition. Read books and articles that challenge you. Learn new skills or hobbies. If you like puzzles, find ones that are harder to solve. Look for a YouTube series that will teach you a new skill or subject.
Care for Your Brain from the Outside
Brain injuries can increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Buckle up in the car. Wear your helmet when riding your bike. Work on balance exercises to reduce the possibility of taking a fall.
This is easy – more fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and leafy greens, less fats, simple carbohydrates and fried fast foods. The Mediterranean diet is highly recommended as a guideline for reducing the risk of dementia.
Care for Your Mental Health
If you are suffering from depression, stress or anxiety, seek help from a professional. Not only can a mental healthcare provider help you feel better, feeling better can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s.
There are many lifestyle choices that can help you reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Don’t try to take them on all at once. Pick out the ones that you find most appealing or are most urgent. If heart and mental health are a concern, these should take priority. Make a list and work on it over the next few months. Create a plan with deadlines. Next year, look back over the progress you’ve made! It will help motivate you to make more changes.