5 Expert-Approved Lifestyle Habits to Adopt That Protect You from Alzheimer’s Disease
Keep your brain in tip-top shape with these little lifestyle changes.
How to protect against Alzheimer's disease
If everyone in the United States added just one healthy habit, it might prevent or delay a million cases of Alzheimer's disease that would otherwise be expected to occur over five years, says psychiatrist Gary Small, MD, director of the UCLA Longevity Center.
Adopting these routine habits has never been more important. In fact, Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, according to the National Institute on Aging. And research published in the Journal of the Alzheimer's Association projects that by 2050 deaths in the United States among persons with Alzheimer's disease will be over 1 million.
While research hasn't yet proved that lifestyle changes can indefinitely ward off the disease, says Dr. Small, who is also the author of The Alzheimer's Prevention Program. "If you read the small print, the evidence is compelling." The oldest baby boomers are now reaching their late 60s to early 70s, an age when Alzheimer's risk starts to climb. We asked Dr. Small which lifestyle changes are the best for staving off Alzheimer's disease.
Go for a power walk
For overall good health, it should come as no surprise that a doctor's go-to prescription is a well-balanced diet and regular exercise routine. But studies have shown that when couch potatoes start a fitness program, it's not just arm and leg muscles that bulk up; key portions of the brain do too. Researchers in Wisconsin measured the daily physical activity of 93 adults in their mid-sixties for a week and then scanned their brains to see how their exercise routine affected their cognitive functions. All of the participants were at high-risk for developing Alzheimer's because they had at least one parent with Alzheimer's disease, at least one gene linked to Alzheimer's disease, or both. Their findings, published in 2017 in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, revealed that people who spent at least 68 minutes a day doing moderate-intensity exercise, such as a brisk walk, had better glucose metabolism in their brains—a function that tends to be depressed in people who suffer from Alzheimer's disease—than people who were sedentary or exercised at a lower intensity. "You can build brain muscle," says Dr. Small. "You don't have to become a triathlete—park your car a bit of a distance from your destination. Take one flight of stairs. Start slowly and build up."
Nurture your relationships
Crossword puzzles get all the attention, but mental challenges of all kinds—like socializing or these 7 genius morning brain boosters—appear to help ward off Alzheimer's, says Dr. Small. Take an art class, talk politics with a friend, have a lunch date with a loved one, anything that keeps you social will earn you big rewards in the fun department and health department. In fact, research published in 2019 in PLoS Medicine suggests the more social contact the lower the risk of developing dementia.
Feed your brain
Want to keep all your marbles? Eat a hearty diet, but keep the portions and junk food in moderation. "If you're overweight at midlife, it doubles your risk for dementia," says Dr. Small. "If you're obese, it quadruples it." A Mediterranean-style diet heavy on the fruit and veggies, whole grains, and lean protein like fish is good for your heart and overall wellbeing because it lowers the risk of diabetes—a major risk factor for Alzheimer's. A 2015 study in Alzheimer's & Dementia found that adults who ate a Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet (designed to treat high blood pressure) or a diet that combined the best of both diets known as the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet had a lower risk of Alzheimer's. Even small swaps to the MIND diet such as eating two vegetable servings a day, two berry servings a week, and one fish meal per week, appeared to lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease. But before scientists can conclude a definitive link between diet and cognitive decline, more research needs to be conducted since most of the data is self-reported. (Here are the most powerful eating habits that could protect your brain from Alzheimer's.)
Relax, relax, relax
An endless continuum of stress is detrimental to both your body and mental sanity, which could negatively impact your longevity down the road. Research published in Neurobiology of Stress in 2018 found that stress makes Alzheimer's progression worse. To quell that anxiety, a quick meditation routine of "oms" and "ahs" may be just the ticket you need to keep your mental state and brain in tip-top shape. Although more research is necessary, some studies suggest that meditation could be an important tool that may help maintain cognitive function and help prevent Alzheimer's, according to the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. For an added brain boost, try listening to music at the same time as you meditate. But if meditation isn't right for you, try tai chi, having an at-home spa day, or taking a leisurely after-dinner walk to decompress your nerves and release that stress. "Whatever you do, don't stress about your Alzheimer's prevention plan," says Dr. Small. "Baby steps can take you a long way." If you don't know where to begin, try practicing mindfulness in the morning to wake up your soul.
Consider adding a vitamin or supplement
Dr. Small recommends taking a multivitamin or supplements to help lower your risk of Alzheimer's. "As we get older, we don't always absorb all the nutrients we need," Dr. Small says. "I see it as insurance." Fish oil provides your body with lots of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, which helps keep your cognitive function on track. But like most things, moderation is key. And you should always discuss any vitamins or supplements you may want to take with your doctor first. Fish oil megadoses that exceed three grams a day can lead to gastrointestinal issues, vitamin imbalances, and potentially increase your cholesterol. Curcumin, the compound found in turmeric, may also reduce inflammation in the body and prevent brain changes related to Alzheimer's but much more research is needed to confirm its potential brain-boosting power. Plus, doctors agree that you need to stop wasting your money on these eight supplements.
- Gary Small, MD, director of the UCLA Longevity Center
- National Institute on Aging: "Alzheimer's Disease Fact Sheet"
- Journal of the Alzheimer's Association: "Deaths in the United States among persons with Alzheimer's disease (2010-2050)."
- Plos Medicine: "Association of social contact with dementia and cognition: 28-year follow-up of the Whitehall II cohort study"
- Alzheimer's & Dementia: "MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer's disease."
- Neurobiology of Stress: "The relationship between stress and Alzheimer's disease"
- Journal of Alzheimer's Disease: "Stress, Meditation, and Alzheimer's Disease Prevention: Where The Evidence Stands."
- Journal of Alzheimer's Disease: "The Mechanisms of Action of Curcumin in Alzheimer's Disease."