June 27, 2005
Getting regular exercise, eating a heart-healthy diet, even avoiding gum disease may help to ward off Alzheimer's years down the road, new research suggests. The findings, presented last week at the Alzheimer's Association's first International Conference on the Prevention of Dementia in Washington, D.C., add to a growing body of evidence that lifestyle measures may help to keep the brain young as we age.
One study, from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, involved 500 middle-aged sons and daughters whose parents had Alzheimer's disease. The children, average age 53, were given memory tests and regular check-ups over five years. Those who drank alcohol in moderation just one or two drinks a day and who got regular exercise tended to do better on memory tests compared with alcohol-abstaining teatotalers and sedentary couch potatoes.
"Our findings suggest that exercise may be protective," says study leader Dr. Mark Sager of the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Institute. While he would not suggest that someone who does not drink start doing so based on the research, he would also not discourage anyone who can handle a glass of wine or beer from drinking in moderation.
Another study of 1,800 older Japanese-Americans living in Seattle found that fruit or vegetable juice may afford some protection for the aging brain. Study participants who regularly drank at least three glasses of fruit or vegetable juice a week were four times less likely to develop Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia late in life than those who rarely or never drank juice. The researchers, from the University of South Florida College of Public Health, suspect that the juices contain antioxidants, potent cell-protecting compounds that may protect blood vessels throughout the body, including in the brain.
A third study looked at 109 pairs of identical twins in Sweden to see if any lifestyle factors might help to ward off Alzheimer's disease. In each pair, one of the twins developed Alzheimer's or another form of dementia, while the other remained mentally alert. Since identical twins share identical genes, researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and the University of Southern California examined medical and educational histories for possible links to brain health.
The researchers found that a twin who had developed severe gum disease and missing teeth before age 35 was four to five times more likely to develop dementia than one with a healthy mouth. While the investigators caution that flossing the teeth will not prevent Alzheimer's, they speculate that the chronic inflammation that causes gum and periodontal disease may, over time, play a role in damaging the brain. Confirming earlier research that education and life-long mental activity helps keep the mind sharp, they also found that twins with low levels of formal schooling and education were 1.6 times more likely to develop Alzheimer's late in life.
The findings add to a growing body of evidence that a sound diet, regular exercise, mental stimulation, and other lifestyle factors may play a role in the prevention of Alzheimer's. While genes and other factors all play a role in who develops the disease, more and more studies are emerging that heart-healthy measures and an active mind may, at least in some people, help to delay its onset or limit its impact. For more on the risk factors for Alzheimer's and ways to keep the mind sharp with age, visit www.ALZinfo.org.
Alzheimer's Association, International Conference on the Prevention of Dementia, Washington, D.C., June 19-20, 2005.