How to Cut Your Risk for Alzheimer’s in Half
Unfortunately, there is still no foolproof way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. But researchers have learned a lot about how you can substantially reduce your risk.
Scientists have found 18 health and lifestyle factors with clear differences between people who have Alzheimer’s and people who don’t.
Consider, for example, type 2 diabetes: People with diabetes are at least twice as likely to get Alzheimer’s.(1)
We know that people with Alzheimer’s have abnormal accumulations of Amyloid-β plaques and Tau protein tangles in their brains. But, those may only be symptoms of the underlying cause. In fact, there’s a growing belief among researchers that Alzheimer’s may well be Type 3 diabetes.(2)
Could you have diabetes and not know it? Yes; one in every three seniors who have diabetes doesn’t know it.(3)
So, do you want to stay mentally sharp for as long as possible? I certainly do, and I’ll bet that you do, too. In fact, a recent AARP survey found that 87 percent of respondents was very concerned about this.(4)
Here’s how to reduce your diabetes/Alzheimer’s risk:
Keep Your Weight in the Healthy Zone
To lose weight, eating less is far more important than exercising more.(5) Exercise consumes far fewer calories than many people think. For example: thirty minutes of jogging or swimming laps might burn off 350 calories. But most people, fat or fit, can’t keep up a strenuous 30-minute exercise regimen every day.
On the other hand, you could achieve the same calorie reduction by eliminating two regular 16-ounce sodas each day. At the end of a year, you’ll have lost 36 pounds.
That doesn’t mean you can stop exercising. The right kind of exercises are vitally important for both your heart health and your brain health. (more about this below)
What Is Your Healthy Weight? — Most doctors use a BMI (body-mass-index) height-weight chart. While it’s useful for many people, it does have flaws. For example: the BMI chart can show that some healthy-weight athletes are overweight, even obese, when that’s clearly not the case.
And, the standard BMI chart may be too restrictive for seniors. According to the most recent studies, being mildly overweight is not a significant risk factor for death in many older adults.
“Body mass index is an imperfect measure of the risk of mortality,” and factors like blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar must be considered, said Dr. Samuel Klein, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.(6)
Here is a “Smart BMI Calculator” that has been adjusted to compute your body mass index and rate it appropriately for men, women, children, juveniles and seniors.(7)
Important Note: The BMI calculated by the “Smart BMI Calculator” is only a suggestion and may not be accurate for your specific situation. If the suggested value disagrees with those of your doctor, do not change your behavior without consulting him or her first.
Both the Mediterranean and DASH diets have shown brain-boosting benefits in past research, even though both are typically touted for their protective powers for the heart. The MIND diet, on the other hand, emphasizes the pieces of each that have been specifically linked to dementia prevention and modifies other aspects, like fruit consumption, for added benefit.(8)
The MIND diet reduced Alzheimer’s risk by 53% among strict adherents and by 35% among those who followed it pretty well, according to a study published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of The Alzheimer’s Association.(9) It’s also easier to follow than the Mediterranean and DASH diets because it has more specific guidelines.
Perfect MIND dieters eat:
- At least 3 servings of whole grains a day (1 serving = 1 slice of 100% whole grain bread)
- 6 servings of leafy greens a week (1 serving = 2 cups) plus one other veggie serving a day (1 serving = 1 cup = tennis ball)
- 2 servings of berries a week (1 serving = 1 cup = tennis ball)
- 1 serving of fish a week (1 serving = 3 oz = deck of cards)
- 2 servings of poultry a week (1 serving = 3 oz = deck of cards)
- 3 servings of legumes a week (1 serving beans or peas = ½ cup = ½ tennis ball)
- 5 servings of nuts a week (1 serving = 1 oz of nuts = 1 handful shelled almonds)
- A daily serving of alcohol, preferably red wine for its long list of health benefits (1 serving wine = 5 oz)
Sugary drinks — including artificially sweetened “diet” drinks — are major contributors to the obesity epidemic. Drinking soda can actually trigger sweet cravings by dulling your sensitivity to sweet tastes, sparking a vicious cycle of eating sweet foods and drinks. The excess calories are stored as belly fat that, in turn, puts you at a greater risk of metabolic syndrome — a combination of risk factors that can lead to high blood pressure, high triglycerides, fatty liver disease, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.(10)
The term “sugary drink” refers to any beverage with added sugar or other sweetener. It includes regular and diet sodas and colas, root beer, ginger ale, fruit punch, lemonade and other “ades,” sweetened powdered drinks, flavored waters with added sugar or artificial sweeteners, sports drinks, energy drinks — even naturally sweetened fruit drinks.
Why? People who drink sugary beverages don’t feel as full as they would have if they eaten the same calories from solid food. And, studies show that people who drink sugary beverages don’t compensate for their high calory content by eating less food.
Your pancreas, the organ that produces insulin, doesn’t know the difference between sugar and artificial sweeteners. As a result, when you drink a sugary drink — even an artificially sweetened drink — your pancreas thinks “FOOD” and begins pumping out insulin to carry that “food” to your cells. Too much insulin decreases your body’s cells’ ability to absorb the nutrients they need. That can result in type 2 diabetes.
“OK, so what can I drink?” Personally, I prefer water (with crushed ice whenever possible) and unsweetened tea. There are a wide variety of other healthy choices that you may prefer over water and tea, such as those described in the article “9 Soda Alternatives.” If a steady diet of these suggestions is too extreme for you, Women’s Health Magazine offers recipes for 7 low-cal alternatives in their article, “Soda Pop Stars: The Best Fizzy Drinks.”
Know Your Numbers
You don’t need to have an annual physical to stay healthy. But, it is an excellent way to catch a potentially dangerous medical condition when it’s in its earliest and most treatable stage. Even if nothing’s wrong, and you’re in perfect health, it’s still a good idea because it gives you and your doctor a chance to get to know each other without the stress of a crisis. And, the blood tests he or she orders for you will establish baselines for any future tests that may need to be done.
Here are several tests that can be important with regard to Alzheimer’s and other dementias:
- Blood Pressure — When high blood pressure is left untreated — in addition to the problems it causes in other parts of your body — fatty deposits can build up in the arteries of your brain, decreasing the flow of blood and nutrients needed by your brain to function properly.
Action Goal → Your blood pressure should be less than 120/80.(11)
- Cholesterol (LDL, HDL, Triglycerides) — When your bad cholesterol (LDL) or triglycerides are too high, fatty deposits can build up in the arteries of your brain, decreasing the flow of blood and nutrients needed by your brain to function properly.
Action Goals → Total cholesterol less than 200;
Triglycerides less than 150;
LDL cholesterol less than 100;
HDL cholesterol 40 or higher (the higher the better).(12)
- Vitamin D — Adults who were moderately deficient in vitamin D had a 53% increased risk of developing dementia, and those who were severely deficient had a 125% increased risk compared to people with healthy levels, reports a study in the journal Neurology. A deficiency in the nutrient was also associated with up to a 122% increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.(13)Researchers suggest that you face a double whammy as you age: Not only are you more at risk of developing cognitive problems, your skin becomes less efficient at converting sunlight into vitamin D, putting you at an increased risk of deficiency.
Action Point → Have your doctor test your vitamin D level.
- Vitamin B12 — Most people with vitamin B12 deficiencies have a mild problem. But in some cases, this deficiency can have very serious consequences. You can develop mental problems, including confused thinking, cognitive impairment, memory problems and dementia, which in some serious cases can be irreversible.(14)
Action Point → Have your doctor test your vitamin B12 level.
- Blood Glucose — This test looks at how well your body uses sugar and is used to confirm and monitor diabetes as well as long-term blood sugar control.
Action Point → If you do NOT have diabetes, your fasting blood glucose should be less than 100.(15)
Reduce Your Risk for Diabetes … or, If You Already Have It, Manage It More Effectively
Once again, people with diabetes are at least twice as likely to get Alzheimer’s than people with normal glucose levels.(1)
Blood glucose (blood sugar) doesn’t come just from sugar; it also comes from carbohydrates of all kinds; easily digested carbohydrates flood the bloodstream with sugar. The glucose in your blood is what powers your body’s cells, including those in your brain.
Insulin is produced by your body to help your cells take in the glucose they need for energy. But the cells can hold only so much; excess sugar is first stored as glycogen, and — when there’s enough of that — as fat.
With type 1 diabetes, your body does not make insulin. With type 2, the more common type — 90 to 95 out of 100 people who have diabetes — your body does not make or use insulin well. Without enough insulin, the glucose stays in your blood and causes diabetes. High blood glucose isn’t just bad for your body, but it’s also bad for your brain.
Diabetes increases overall dementia risk, and quickens the transition from mild cognitive impairment to full-blown Alzheimer’s. In fact, all-cause dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and vascular dementia are all significantly higher in people with diabetes than in those with normal glucose tolerance. There’s a growing belief among researchers that Alzheimer’s is probably Type 3 Diabetes.(2)
To learn more about how a diet similar to the Mediterranean, DASH and MIND diets can help prevent diatetes — and apparently reverse it in some cases — here’s an informative video by Dr. Neal Barnard, an adjunct associate professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.
A related article, “Can You Reverse Type 2 Diabetes?,” appeared recently in WebMD.com.(16)
- Aerobic Exercise — Regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.(17) Why? Aerobic exercise pumps more blood and other nutrients to your brain.
- Strength Training — Regular, moderate exercise can positively affect blood sugar, especially with type 2 diabetes. It also improves your body’s sensitivity to insulin and stimulates your muscles to use glucose. Studies consistently find improvement in blood sugars after strength training, which usually involves lifting weights to build muscle.(18)
Here’s more you can do:
Manage Your Medications, including Interactions and Side Effects
A number of medications can have a negative effect on cognitive function when used alone or in combination with other medications.(19) The effects can be temporary or long-term. According to Consumer Reports on Health,
Prescription drug interactions and side effects, vitamin B12 deficiency, dehydration and normal pressure hydrocephalus most commonly produce false symptoms of dementia.
Then, take the list with you for your next doctor’s appointment.
Avoid Tobacco Smoke
Don’t smoke! And, find ways to avoid secondhand smoke; it’s nearly as bad as smoking yourself. Why? Tobacco smoke prevents your brain from getting all of the oxygen and other nutrients (food for your brain) it needs to function efficiently.
How? It reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood, narrows your arteries, increases your bad cholesterol, weakens your brain’s blood vessels and increases the chance that the small blood vessels in your brain will be blocked by clots.(20)
Smoking can also weaken your immune system, increasing your risk of infection. It can also cause diabetes, high blood pressure and artery disease, in addition to multiple respiratory illnesses and cancer.(21)
Avoid Brain Injury
According to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, more than 600,000 older Americans are treated each year in hospital emergency rooms for injuries at home. Many of these injuries result from hazards that are easy to overlook, but easy to fix. By taking some simple steps to correct them, many injuries could be prevented. Don’t minimize falls. Even minor concussions can speed cognitive decline.
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Stay Cognitively Fit
Pursue new activities that require working memory, long-term memory and other executive processes. For example: learning digital photography, computer coding, a new language and other novel tasks require many more semantic skills and working memory. Brain games and crossword puzzles don’t. Remember, it isn’t enough to take on a fun new hobby, make sure it is rigorous and challenges you!(22)
Keep Socially Active
Stay engaged with friends and the broader community. Participating in social activities such as doing volunteer work, joining a club, or going to church may help protect against cognitive decline or dementia. A new study from researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that people who socialized and did group activities in middle and old age were 55 percent less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment compared to those who did not.(23)
Manage Your Health
- Stress — Many other things can affect your diabetes, including your stress level. Stress can send your blood sugar level soaring. And, chronic stress produces chronic inflammation throughout your body and brain.That can be quite dangerous. When inflammation as an immune response is never “shut off,” the constant production of immune cells can do permanent damage, leading to cancer, heart disease, arthritis and Alzheimer’s, among other health concerns.(24)
Action Point → Try yoga or meditation or find time to de-stress with a relaxing hobby.
- Depression — Numerous studies have shown a history of depression increases the risk for dementia, and depressive symptoms are also associated with cognitive decline. A study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry identified links between loneliness and the development of dementia. The researchers found that feelings of loneliness in older adults increased their odds of developing dementia by 63% during the three years of the study.
- Sleep — Get adequate sleep. Researchers suggest without a restorative slumber, the brain deposits the beta-amyloid protein related to Alzheimer’s disease, which they think may start the cognitive decline later on in life. Sleep helps wash away the toxic proteins at night, preventing them from building up and from potentially destroying brain cells. It’s providing a power cleanse for the brain.The more beta-amyloid you have in certain parts of your brain, the less deep sleep you get and, consequently, the worse your memory. Additionally, the less deep sleep you have, the less effective you are at clearing out this bad protein. It’s a vicious cycle.(26)
How Can You Tell If You’re Not Sleeping Well?
Action Point → Talk to your doctor if you have trouble sleeping, or don’t feel rested when you wake up.
- You live on coffee — or energy drinks — all day.
- You sleep ’til noon (or later!) on your days off.
- You’ve got a short fuse.
- You usually wake up with a dry mouth, sore throat or headache.
- You wake up multiple times to go to the bathroom.
- You fall asleep — even when you’d rather not.
- You’re gaining weight.(27)
- You snore.
- You have restless legs or arms.
Maintain a Strong Sense Purpose in Life
A study at Rush University Medical Center indicates that having a stronger sense of purpose is linked to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.(28) We thrive on a sense of purpose — purpose makes us feel alive, gives us energy and motivation — purpose gives us a reason to get out of bed every morning. And a lack of a sense of purpose can make us vulnerable to depression and addiction.(29)
(1) “Is Alzheimer’s Type 3 Diabetes?,” by Mark Bittmann, The New York Times, September 25, 2012.
(2) “Alzheimer’s Is Type 3 Diabetes,” by Kas Thomas, BigThink.com, August, 2014.
(3) “Undiagnosed diabetes: Does it matter?,” by T. Kue Young and Cameron A. Mustard, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, January 9, 2001.
(4) “Findings from AARP’s 2012 Member Opinion Survey,” AARP, 2013.
(5) “To Lose Weight, Eating Less Is Far More Important Than Exercising More,” by Aaron E. Carroll, The New York Times, June 15, 2015.
(6) “Study Suggests Lower Mortality Risk for People Deemed to Be Overweight,” by Pam Belluck, The New York Times, January 1, 2013.
(7) “Smart BMI Calculator,” created by Christian Bachmann, 2014.
(8) “The New Diet That Could Lower Your Alzheimer’s Risk by 53%,” by Sarah Klein, Prevention, April 20, 2015.
(9) “MIND Diet Score More Predictive Than DASH or Mediterranean Diet Scores,” by Morris, et.al., Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of The Alzheimer’s Association, July 2014 Issue, Vol. 10, Issue 4, P166.
(10) “9 Sugary Drinks,” Harvard University, T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 2015.
(11) “Understanding Blood Pressure Readings,” American Heart Association, April 28, 2015.
(13) “The 10 Worst Things That Can Happen When You Don’t Get Enough Vitamin D,” Prevention.com, January 26, 2015.
(14) “Vitamin B12 Deficiency,” WebMD.com, April 02, 2014.
(15) “Living with diabetes blog: Know your blood glucose target range,” by Nancy Klobassa Davidson, R.N. and Peggy Moreland, Mayo Clinic, R.N. May 8, 2013.
(16) “Can You Reverse Type 2 Diabetes?,” by Sonya Collins, reviewed by Michael Dansinger, MD, February 12, 2015, WebMD.com.
(17) “Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills,” Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter, April 09, 2014.
(18) “Slideshow: Blood Sugar Control and Insulin,” WebMD.com, May 12, 2015.
(20) “Why Quit Smoking?,” American Heart Association, February 25, 2015.
(21) “Smoking’s Toll on Health Is Even Worse Than Previously Thought, a Study Finds,” by Denise Grady, The New York Times, February 11, 2015.
(22) “Mental Fitness for Seniors,” Jann Gumbiner Ph.D., PsychologyToday.com, May 19, 2015.
(23) “Which hobbies help an aging brain?,” by Jessica Firger, CBSNews.com, April 8, 2015.
(25) “5 Surprising Causes Of Alzheimer’s Disease,” by Carrie Arnold, Prevention, March 19, 2015.
(26) “Poor sleep linked to toxic buildup of Alzheimer’s protein, memory loss,” ScienceDaily.com, June 1, 2015.
(27) “7 Signs You’re Not Sleeping As Well As You Think You Are,” by Meghan Rabbitt, Prevention, July 10, 2015.
(28) “Slideshow: 18 Secrets for a Longer Life,” WebMD.com, March 19, 2015.
(29) “What’s Your Purpose?,” by Steve Taylor Ph.D., PsychologyToday.com, May 25, 2015.