Adopting four of five healthy lifestyle measures may lower your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by up to 60 percent, according to a new report. The study, of nearly 3,000 men and women who were enrolled in two separate studies, found that the healthier your lifestyle, the lower your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
The five measures the researchers tested were:
Regular exercise. Physical activity is good for the heart and blood vessels, including those in the brain. Experts recommend getting at least 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous intensity exercise. Studies have shown that regular aerobic activities like walking, cycling or climbing stairs improved thinking skills in people in their 20s, and that the benefits of exercise on thinking skills continued to accrue as people age. Exercise can also be good for people with Alzheimer’s, helping to improve coordination and prevent falls, a leading cause of disability in older people.
Don’t smoke. Smoking has been shown to speed up cognitive decline and may spur the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. It damages blood vessels throughout the body, including in the brain. Middle-aged smokers score worse on memory tests than their nonsmoking peers, studies show. But quitting smoking, regardless of age, has benefits. Even in people over 60 who have been lifelong smokers, quitting will improve health, and the benefits may be immediate.
A heart-healthy diet. What’s good for the heart is good for the brain, numerous studies have shown, and diet can be a major contributor to the health of both mind and body. Many experts recommend the so-called MIND diet, which modifies the Mediterranean and DASH diets to highlight the foods and nutrients linked to preventing dementia.
A Mediterranean-style diet, rich in whole grains, vegetables, fish and healthy fats like olive oil, along with moderate amounts of wine, has been shown in many studies to be good for the heart, as well as the brain. The DASH diet, for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, calls for a mix of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and limited salt to keep blood pressure in check.
To get the possible brain-boosting benefits of the MIND diet, someone would need to eat at least three servings of whole grains, a salad or green leafy vegetable and at least one other vegetable. Every other day, beans might be on the diet, with chicken and berries at least twice a week, and fish at least once a week. The diet also includes daily snacks of moderate amounts of nuts.
Light to moderate alcohol consumption. Moderate drinking, such as a daily glass of wine (for women) or two drinks a day (for men), is linked to better brain health. Moderate drinking is part of the Mediterranean-style diet and other heart-healthy regimens. Studies have shown that light to moderate performed better on tests of episodic memory, the ability to recall the details of past events, such as when or where something happened. Those who drank no more than one or two drinks a day were also found to have larger hippocampi. The hippocampus, a part of the brain critical for memory and thinking, is one of the first areas affected by Alzheimer’s disease.
Mentally challenging and stimulating activities. Studies have found that older adults who stay intellectually engaged tend to have better brain health. Whether it’s learning a new language, reading a newspaper, or writing, mentally challenging activities may delay the rapid memory loss that occurs with Alzheimer’s disease. One study found that doing crossword puzzles regularly might keep the brain up to 10 years “younger.” Social activities like doing volunteer work or paying social visits have also been linked to a delayed onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms.
Mentally challenging activities may help to build up so-called cognitive reserve, or the ability of the brain to function normally despite showing signs of damage from Alzheimer’s disease. So while participating in these mentally stimulating tasks did not prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s altogether, it did delay the onset of memory loss and thinking problems. It might also help slowing the progression of the disease.
For the study, funded by the National Institute on Aging and published in Neurology, researchers found that compared to participants with no or only one healthy lifestyle factors, those who engaged in two or three of these behaviors were 37 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Those who engaged in four of five of these behaviors had a 60 percent lower Alzheimer’s risk.
The study was observational, looking at participants in one slice of time, so could not prove cause and effect. But “this observational study provides more evidence on how a combination of modifiable behaviors may mitigate Alzheimer’s disease risk,” said Dr. Richard J. Hodes, the director of the NIA. “The findings strengthen the association between healthy behaviors and lower risk and add to the basis for controlled clinical trials to directly test the ability of interventions to slow or prevent development of Alzheimer’s disease.
By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.
Source: Dhana K, et al: “Healthy lifestyle and the risk of Alzheimer’s Dementia: Findings From Two Longitudinal Studies.” Neurology, June 2020