Preventing Alzheimer’s

Preventing Alzheimer’s

There’s still no cure for Alzheimer’s or known way to prevent it. But if you’re worried about developing the disease, your doctor just might give you an unexpected prescription. She might urge you to exercise daily, eat a diet rich in whole foods, and watch your weight. She might even recommend taking a language class or some dance lessons. Or having a fish dinner twice a week. Or adding curry dishes to your menu.

Thanks to many recent studies, researchers now have several promising theories on helping prevent Alzheimer’s. In fact, a report in the Annual Review of Public Health stressed that researchers are increasingly looking at Alzheimer’s the way they do other chronic conditions in which lifestyle plays a role. Many feel that it’s not too soon to take action — especially if you have a family history that puts you at risk.


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Protect the heart, protect the brain

Obesity, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure all significantly raise the risk of Alzheimer’s, researchers reported. Swedish and Finnish researchers followed a group of 1,500 older subjects for an average of 21 years. A combination of all three factors increased the risk by six-fold.

These same risk factors also contribute to heart disease, the number-one killer in this country. Doctors have long encouraged patients to protect themselves from heart disease with regular exercise and a healthy diet. Now there’s growing evidence that a heart-healthy lifestyle may also be good for the brain.

Even if you’re not technically overweight, having excess belly fat may increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. A long-term study of more than 6,500 people published in Neurologyfound that those who had the most abdominal fat between the ages of 40 and 45 were about three times more likely to develop dementia in later life than those with the least. And a 2010 study using MRI imaging suggested one mechanism at work: greater weight in 733 health participants was linked with lower brain volume, with the strongest link between abdominal fat and decreased brain volume.

Warding off Alzheimer’s with exercise

More and more evidence suggests that people who exercise regularly into their later years are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s: In a recent study, older women who were physically active during the six to eight years of follow-up were less likely to suffer from impaired memory and reasoning. In addition, several case-control studies suggest that a sedentary lifestyle is a risk factor for the disease.

What’s more, a study released in late 2010 also suggested that walking at least 6 miles a week — the equivalent of 72 city blocks — will help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s. In the first decade of a 20-year study of 426 older adults, the researchers also found that adults who already had Alzheimer’s or mild cognitive impairment were able to preserve the brain’s key memory and learning centers over at least a 10-year period by walking 5 miles a week.

And it’s never too late to get started — exercising in midlife can significantly reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s, especially if you’re at genetic risk for the disease. Swedish researchers, for example, studied the health of nearly 1,500 people aged 65 to 79 whose lifestyle had been monitored for almost 35 years. In a study published in Lancet Neurology, they reported that older people who exercised at least twice a week had approximately a 60 percent lower risk of suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia than their less active peers. Carriers of the Apo-E gene, which puts people at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s, reaped the largest benefits. Exercise may ward off Alzheimer’s by boosting blood flow to the brain and helping protect blood vessels there, researchers speculated.

And even a little exercise may yield tremendous gains. In a recent U.S. study involving more than 1,700 adults followed over a six-year period, adults over 65 who exercised for 15 minutes three times a week reduced their risk for dementia by one-third.

“This study adds to growing evidence that moderate exercise is the closest thing we have to a magic wellness bullet for everyone,” said William Thies, vice-president of the Alzheimer’s Association for medical and scientific affairs, in a press release following the report. “Moderate physical activity has all kinds of benefits and almost no downside.”

Finally, exercise helps protect against insulin resistance and diabetes, which are both considered risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease.

If you don’t enjoy the thought of working out, consider this: A recent study that extolled the possible virtues of board games and reading to prevent cognitive decline also found that a certain physical activity — dancing — was especially valuable for preventing Alzheimer’s. Whether it’s salsa, rock and roll, hip-hop or a waltz, dancing seems to be good medicine.