Feeling a little foggy? It may be a normal part of getting older, or it may be something more serious. It’s typical in aging to lose some mental sharpness. With aging, the brain cells begin to deteriorate, and essential fuels aren’t delivered as efficiently. But Alzheimer’s disease isn’t an inconvenient aspect of getting older; it’s an incurable, degenerative, and ultimately fatal disease
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia; it’s characterized by a buildup of amyloid protein plaques in the brain, tangled bundles of nerve fibers, and the loss of connections between nerve cells in the brain. The disease is usually diagnosed in people over the age of 65, but it can occur earlier.
The exact cause is unknown, but contributing factors include genetics, lifestyle factors and diet. And while there’s no known cure for Alzheimer’s, you can prevent it, says brain expert Daniel Amen, M.D., author of Change Your Brain, Change Your Body (Harmony Books, 2010). According to Amen, changing habits in adulthood can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, or sidestep
Start saving your brain today, with these smart steps.
1. Be a vegan. Saturated fat appears to increase the risk for Alzheimer’s, possibly by compromising blood-brain barrier and allowing harmful substances to enter the brain.1In one study, people who ate smaller amounts of high-fat dairy products, red meat, organ meat and butter had less chance of developing the disease. If you don’t want to give up meat and dairy, choose lean, low-fat versions, and reduce your intake of both.
2. Get moving. Study after study points to physical exercise as the most effective way to prevent Alzheimer’s. Doing exercise that increases heart rate for at least 30 minutes, several times a week, appears to inhibit Alzheimer’s-like brain changes, slowing the development of amyloid plaques in the brain, a key feature of the disease.2 Ways to move: ride a bike, go swimming, try skiing, take a brisk walk, play tennis—anything you enjoy that you do consistently, day after day.
3. Eat like a bird. Many studies suggest that eating less food decreases overall inflammation in the body.5Other studies have found that restricting calories, especially carbohydrates, may prevent Alzheimer’s by triggering activity in the brain associated with longevity. (But high-fat, high-protein diets won’t work; the study also found that a high caloric intake based on saturated fat would increase risk.)
4. Mix it up. Because foods aren’t eaten in isolation, one study examined the results of a specific set of dietary patterns.6 It seems that eating a varied diet made up of dark green vegetables, tomatoes, crucifers, nuts, fish, poultry and fruit is the most protective.
5. Check your B vitamins. In one study, people with elevated levels of homocysteine—an amino acid that’s linked to increased risk of heart disease—had nearly double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.7 The body naturally takes care of excess homocysteine if it has enough folate and B12 vitamins; if you have a family history of Alzheimer’s or other risk factors, consider taking a supplement of folate and B12 to keep homocysteine levels in check. Other supplements that show promise: ginkgo biloba,8 vinpocetine, huperazine A, acetyl-l-carnitine and alpha lipoic acid, says Amen.
6. Get your five-a-day. Or more: much research shows that free radical damage may lead to Alzheimer’s disease, and antioxidants from fruits and vegetables are one of the best ways to prevent that damage. Start early: a lifelong consumption of fruits and vegetables offers the best protection, says one study.9
7. Sharpen the saw. Being bored is potentially harmful to the long-term well-being of your brain. In several new studies, people who do not engage in regular learning activities throughout their lives have a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. Flex your mental muscles with new experiences: travel to a foreign country, drive a different route to work, learn to play chess, take up a new sport. Or learn to dance: you’ll get exercise, and memorizing moves will stimulate your brain.
8. Sober up. Alcohol may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and drugs like marijuana, cocaine, prescription pain killers and benzodiazepines, diminish brain function and damage neurons. Educate kids early about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. Adults, avoid recreational drugs, take prescription meds with caution, and limit alcohol consumption to no more than one to two normal-size drinks a week.
9. Protect your head. Brain injuries—even those not resulting in concussion—can damage the brain and lead to Alzheimer’s. Helmets only offer partial protection; if your head hits the ground or a hard surface, it shakes the brain inside the skull, with our without a helmet. Inside the skull are a whole lot of sharp, boney ridges—and a helmet can’t protect your brain from those, Amen says.
10. Catch some rays. Decreased levels of vitamin D can increase Alzheimer’s risk. The best way to increase levels is exposure to the sun, but wearing sunscreen blocks inhibits the skin’s production of vitamin D. The American Medical Association recommends 10 minutes of direct sun exposure, without sunscreen, several times a week. If you’re fearful of burning, consider a supplement; the current recommendation is 400 IU a day, but most experts agree that’s too low, and that as much as 2000 IU a day is more appropriate. Get your vitamin D levels checked, and ask your health care provider to recommend the best amount for you.
11. Rethink your cookware. Though no study definitively links aluminum cookware to Alzheimer’s, many studies confirm that aluminum concentrations in the brain are linked to increased risk of the disease.10 Aluminum is toxic to brain function and we’d assume less is better. If you’re at risk for Alzheimer’s, consider switching to stainless steel cookware, and avoiding other sources of aluminum, such as tap water and aluminum-containing drugs.
10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s
Simple forgetfulness or the beginnings of dementia? If any of these signs sound familiar, it may be time to seek medical care:
1. Memory loss–forgetting important dates or events, or asking for the same information over and over–that interferes with daily life.
2. Difficulty in solving problems, developing and following a plan, or working with numbers; for example, following a recipe, or keeping track of bills.
3. Challenges in completing familiar daily tasks, like driving to a familiar location, or remembering the rules of a favorite game.
4. Becoming confused about times or locations, like losing track of dates or seasons, having trouble understanding something that’s not happening immediately, or forgetting where they are and/or how they got there.
5. Difficulty understanding visual problems and spatial relationships, like judging distance, determining color or contrast, or passing a mirror in a room and thinking there’s someone else there.
6. Having trouble with words, either in speaking or writing, such as difficulty following a conversation, repeating themselves, struggling with vocabulary, calling things by the wrong name, or having problems finding the right word.
7. Misplacing things, difficulty in retracing steps, or putting things in unusual places.
8. Poor judgment, or decreased capacity for decision making–for example, giving large amounts of money to telemarketers, or poor self-care or grooming.
9. Withdrawing from work or decreased involvement in social activities or hobbies, sometimes because of difficulties remembering how to complete hobbies or tasks.
10. Personality changes, or changes in mood; for example, becoming anxious, fearful, confused or depressed, or becoming easily upset.