From Healthy Habits
Alzheimer’s disease is the leading cause of dementia, accounting for approximately 80 percent of dementia cases and affecting more than 5.5 million people in the United States. But all dementia is not Alzheimer’s, says David Knopman, MD, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota, and Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology.
Dementia is a general term used to describe a set of symptoms that may include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving, or language. Alzheimer’s is a physical disease that targets the brain, causing problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. It is also age-related (symptoms usually start at age 65) and progressive as symptoms usually develop slowly and worsen over time.
Research shows that plaques and tangles, two proteins that build up and block connections between nerve cells and eventually damage and kill nerve cells in the brain, cause the symptoms of the disease.
Get a baseline brain scan
Neuroimaging, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT), is one of the most promising areas of research for the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. “The idea is to start prevention early,” says Gayatri Devi, MD, neurologist, clinical professor of neurology, Downstate Medical Center.
“We get routine colonoscopies in our fifties, but the risk for colon cancer is less than the risk for dementia.” Structural imaging can reveal tumors, evidence of strokes, damage from severe head trauma, or a buildup of fluid in the brain. “A baseline brain MRI can reveal the evidence of mini-strokes that you may have had without knowing,” says Dr. Devi.
Get enough sleep
When you toss and turn all night, levels of brain-damaging proteins in the cerebrospinal fluid can rise: One study suggests that those with chronic sleep problems during middle age may increase their risk of Alzheimer’s later in life.
“You have to commit to the importance of sleep,” says Dr. Devi. “I prioritize sleep as one of the most important activities I do—I will leave a party early in order to get a good night’s sleep.”
Stay socially active
Say yes to those social invitations! Studies reveal that people with a large social network are at lower risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. “There is something intrinsically valuable about social engagement,” says Dr. Knopman. “It makes sense that those who are more engaged, especially socially, will think more positively and have a better outlook on life.”
People with advanced degrees have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s. Education seems to build a “cognitive reserve,” which enables the brain to better resist neurological damage. “Higher education has a powerful effect,” says Dr. Knopman. It’s never too late—check out the continuing education courses offered near you.
Speaking more than one language can protect against Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, according to research. While no one is sure why a second language helps so much, Dr. Knopman theorizes that the effort to communicate bilingually is like a workout for the brain, helping preserve gray matter and neurons.
Do it yourself
Challenging your brain in new ways can enhance memory as you age. Dr. Devi has her own take on this: “If there is a problem with the phone or the plumbing, I will try to fix it,” she says. “If I try to figure out how to fix this on my own, it is good for my brain.” Right now she’s designing and building a window seat. “It is a way to keep different parts of my brain thriving.”
Exercise crucial to your wellness and your brain. In research, people who exercise regularly can slow cognitive decline by as much as 38 percent. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, the combined results of 11 studies indicate that regular exercise can reduce the risk of developing dementia by about 30 percent; it drops the risk of Alzheimer’s by 45 percent.
“When you are physically active, you burn more calories and you’re less likely to be obese,” explains Dr. Knopman. “You’ll have better cardiovascular health because you are pushing your heart rate.”
Turmeric contains curcumin, a chemical that has been shown to help with inflammation. Used to treat a variety of ailments and conditions such as osteoarthritis and high cholesterol, turmeric has also shown promise as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Devi notes that the research is preliminary, but it suggests that curcumin can help keep the nerve cells functioning and healthy. “You want to keep as many nerve cells functioning with as many connections as possible,” he says.
Take care of your heart
“What is good for the heart is good for the brain,” says Dr. Devi. Conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol, which increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, may also increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, and a new study shows that middle-aged people with risk factors for heart attacks and stroke are also more likely to develop changes in the brain that can lead to the disease.
“Anything that keeps the heart healthy is directly related to brain health,” Dr. Devi says.
Lower your stress levels
Persistent stress can take a toll on the brain, and research indicates that chronic stress can accelerate Alzheimer’s disease. When you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol, a hormone linked to memory trouble. In addition, researchers have found that stress can lead to conditions such as depression and anxiety—which also ups the risk for dementia.
“Eliminating stress helps reduce the amount of cortisol and optimizes glucose utilization, which your brain needs for food,” says Dr. Devi.